in 1958, oscar howe entered an abstract painting in the annual
Contemporary American Indian Painting Exhibition at the Philbrook Art Center
(now the Philbrook Museum of Art) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In its bold degree of inno-
vation, Howe’s work departed from the conventions of ‘‘traditional-style’’ Native
American painting. Titled Umine Wacipi: War and Peace Dance, the piece depicts
five angular figures, in shades of blue, pink, and lavender, performing a ritual dance
against a stark, abstract landscape [figure 1]. Needless to say, Howe was shocked
when his painting was branded as inauthentic and disqualified from the competition.
As explained by the panel of two white jurors and the Comanche painter Jesse E.
Davis (a previous Philbrook grand prize winner), it was ‘‘a fine painting—but not
Indian.’’1 That is, the jurors argued, the painting was not an authentic expression of
Howe’s Indian heritage and identity. However, although the painting was excluded
from consideration for prizes, it was kept on view with the work of nine other artists
in the Plains region category at that year’s exhibition.
Howe was born in 1915 on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota as a de-
scendant of Yankton Sioux chiefs. He graduated from Dorothy Dunn’s famous art
program at the Santa Fe Indian School, after which he served in the Second World
War. He then went on to obtain a master’s degree in art from the University of
Oklahoma. In the course of his work, Howe became a well-known Native Ameri-
can painter whose paintings depicted aspects of Sioux life and culture. He was a
prize winner at several Philbrook Indian Annuals, and he taught art at the Pierre,
South Dakota, Indian School, at Dakota Wesleyan University, and at the University
of South Dakota. How could his painting be anything other than Indian?
Howe’s reception indicates that the Philbrook jurors believed what many ob-
servers did in 1958—that an Indian painting and a modern painting were two differ-
ent things. When innovative Native American artists such as Oscar Howe chose to
depart from established conventions, their artwork was no longer accepted at ‘‘au-
thentic.’’ In response, Howewas quick to offera virulent argument against the jurors’
judgment. In a letter to Jeanne Snodgrass, the Philbrook curator of Native American
art and herself a Cherokee, he wrote, ‘‘Who ever said . . . that my paintings are not
Previous Page Next Page