Thursday, August 22, 2013


Sharron Ahtone Harjo (Kiowa) 

Ahtone Harjo has relatively few ledger drawings to preserve historical tribal events, sacred traditions, and the Ahtone family history.   “As a full-blood Kiowa,” she tells us, “I feel an obligation to illustrate those things that are peculiar to the Kiowa women in our roles as historical recorders.”  

Return Them Safely to Home

Return them Safely to Home focuses on the return of the trophy lance, celebrated in the Kiowa Gourd Dance, a traditional Kiowa ceremony, performed by the Gourd Society in midsummer.  The Gourd Dance was originally called Tian-Paye (Tiah-Pah), after the battlefield, covered with red-flowering skunkberry bushes, where the Kiowas fought against the Cheyennes and the Arapahos.  According to legend, the skunkberry leaves also turned red during the four-day battle—and Tian-Paye became a symbol of survival.  

One Daughter of the Earth 

 In 1985 what Ahone Harjo considers her most important work, One Daughter of the Earth, was commissioned by the Oklahoma Historical Society, to be one of the pair of monumental paintings--seven feet high—that framed the entrance of the gallery of the Oklahoma Indian collection, in the Oklahoma State Museum.  While it is a painting, it is made up of symbols important to the Kiowa tribe or the important Ahtone family.  

In this painting Ahtone Harjo appropriates the style of modern Euro-American art—associated with dislocation, fragmentation, discontinuity, and pessimism—to represent the core of continuity, pride, and tribal unity that has continued and will persist, despite the dislocation and fragmentation the Kiowa people have endured as a result of Euro-American colonization and attempted genocide.  In this tribal and family autoethnography, she used pictographic symbols, recognizable to many tribal members, particularly those living in the Anadarko area, and organized her painting, not by following a linear chronology (associated in Euro-American thought with “progress”), but through a pattern of images, as in a winter count, that represent important historical events, movements, places, and symbols in the historic memory of the Kiowa people and the last three generations of the important Ahtone family as they look forward to a hopeful future.  On the one hand, the painting looks like an uncentered, multi-layered montage of images, which leads the eye in many directions at once.  On the other hand, her plan shows that it was carefully organized.  What follows is based on information provided by the artist.  One Daughter of the Earth is centered on and organized by the Kiowa migration route. 

The Kiowa migration route, beginning in the Yellowstone River Valley, is represented in Ahtone Harjo’s One Daughter of the Earth with an encircled cross. The migration tracks are symbolized by triangular shapes leading across Colorado and Kansas into Texas, and then back to Oklahoma territory.   

Attached to the migration route on the left is a montage of overlapping Kiowa, Oklahoma, and American flags.  Though the Kiowa flag is foremost, they all are important to Kiowa culture.  Indeed, the American flag also symbolizes Ahtone Harjo’s selection as Miss Indian America in 1966.  For Ahtone Harjo—who feels fortunate to be among the few remaining tribal people who are “full degree Kiowa”—the migration route is of historical importance for both her tribe and her family.  The montage of flags and the migration route, which is figured upon a green form, seems to complete the shape of the United States.  And this central image, with its range of multivalent symbols, conveys the complicated transcultural identities of the Kiowa tribe and the Ahtone family.

While the migration route, figured upon its complex ground, provides a structural center to One Daughter of the Earth, the artist’s eponymous daughter, Tahnee, provides a midpoint in its narrative.  This narrative, associated with well-known tribal symbols, consists of references to the generations of Ahtone family, their place in Kiowa history and their perpetuation into the future.   

The Kiowa shield, in the left-hand corner of One Daughter of the Earth, is painted in a representative style, with traditionally divided color space, red and blue.  The four horses symbolize both the Kiowa identity as a powerful horse culture and Tahnee’s fractions of Indian blood, which add up to 4/4ths.  Tahnee is 1/2 Kiowa, 3/16 Seminole, and 5/16 Creek (Muskogee).  Balancing the shield on the right is a bead design of a blunt two-pointed arrow, which represents the Kiowa name of Ahtone Harjo’s maternal great-grandmother, “Killed with a Blunt Arrow,” which was given to Ahtone Harjo in a naming ceremony in 1964.  Both her maternal and paternal great-grandmothers were beaders, as was her mother, Evelyn Tahome Ahtone, who also worked with skins.  

Between the shield and the blunted two-point arrow are two oak leaves, regional symbols frequently used in Kiowa beadwork, which represent Kiowa men and women.  Below that are two groups of count markers, the first eight, the second five, denoting 1985, which was the year of the painting.

The map form, with its flags and migration route, are framed on each side by traditional bead designs and two Christian crosses.  Below that are handprints of the artist and her “one daughter,” Tahnee Ahtone Harjo, “a native and descendant of the Kiowas and a future representative citizen of Oklahoma.” Tahnee has become a beader and clothing designer, and won Best in Show for Cultural and Traditional Clothing at the Sante Fe Market in 2006

The horses below the hands represent Ahtone Harjo’s ledger style.  In the background, between their legs are what look like bricks on the left and, on the right, according to the artist, is a sunset.  And, finally, to its right, are seven stars on a dark blue background.  They represent the Bear Lodge Legend, “which symbolically explains how the spirit force cared for the Kiowas during the migration.  In the traditional Kiowa Star Ceremony—performed before the Sun Dance by young women selected by the tribe—the outstanding woman is chosen to lead their procession, and she holds this position for life.  Ahtone Harjo’s aunt had been chosen for that position and given the Kiowa name that translates as “the one chosen to lead in.”  And Tahnee was given her name, after the family received tribal permission.   In return they held a giveaway and feast for 500 tribal members.  The Ahtones have clearly been an important Kiowa family; Ahtone Harjo’s work honors the past, present, and future of a proud people. 

Focusing on Ahtone women and youth, the implicit narrative, or autoethnography, of One Daughter of the Earth, ends looking forward while holding on to the tribal past.  It is like the ten murals in the Kiowa Tribal Museum of Kiowa history, painted in 1984—two years before One Daughter of the Earth—by Mirac Creepingbear, Parker Boyiddle, and Sherman Caddleson.  Each artist painted three periods of this history, and all three painted the final one, representing the contemporary period, under which is typed:   “Kiowa culture is healthily growing in the present while tenaciously preserving the glory of the past.”

Kiowa Sun Dance

Ahtone Harjo considers Kiowa Sun Dance her major work because of the extensive research that went into making it one of the few historical records of this important annual ceremony in which the entire tribe participated.  It has not been performed since 1887.  She studied calendars and ledger drawings and interviewed her grandfather, other relatives, and tribal elders, who had either witnessed the Sun Dance or heard stories about it.  And she tried to stay as close to the sources as possible.  The painting took Harjo several years before she felt that everything was right.  

She fills her drawing of the elaborate Kiowa Sun Dance ceremony in the medicine lodge with ceremonial details: a buffalo hide hanging from the top of the central altar pole and the sacred Tai-may, the small doll-like figure to the left, is disproportionate to its importance.  For, according to Kiowa Voices, it is among “the highest in rank of all Kiowa spiritual medicines.” “During the Sun Dance, the dancers in their spiritual quest viewed in reverential awe this sacred image of the sun's power.”  Eight shields hang on the cedar screen.  But the other details, according to Ahtone Harjo, are restricted to tribal members.

Last Will is a three-dimensional mixed media ledger drawing that references the penultimate stop in Texas of the Kiowa migration route and reveals a rich autoethnology* of Ahtone Harjo’s family history.  It consists of two Confederate ten dollar bills, front and back, pasted on a generic Last Will and Testament. The front of the bill displays an image of four Confederate cavalrymen pulling a canon and the inscription “Issued February 17th, 1864, Richmond, Virginia.” Treating the vertical bills as facing pages of a ledger book, Ahtone Harjo turned them horizontally, as many warrior artists did, to gain the maximum width—and drew a transparent Kiowa warrior galloping over the artillery, while holding a captured army bugle.  (In 1869 such a bugle was captured by Kiowa Chief Santana and became one of the Gourd Dance trophies.) Under the bills she wrote “That’s all there is. . . . . . [sic] Young County, Texas.  October, 1864,” a memorable date for families in Young County, Texas and Ahtone Harjo’s family.  And on the back of the will she continued:  “To whom it May Concern:  History is an important part of our lives.  As descendants of Texas Citizens, my family has come to be Kiowa by way of some tragic events.  Our family history has been documented and is a source of inspiration.  1864 seems so far [past], but, as in the rest of the U. S., it is a year to be remembered.”

Autoethnography is a form of self-reflection and writing that explores the researcher's personal experience and connects this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings.

The “tragic events” refer to the Elm Creek Raid in Young County, Texas, where 18-month-old Millie Durgan was captured by a Kiowa warrior.  “It was tragic for some people,” says Ahtone Harjo, meaning Millie’s family.  It was particularly tragic for Millie’s mother, Susannah, who was killed while bravely defending the Carter ranch, her son Jimmie, who was killed during the raid, and her older daughter, Charlotte, who was tattooed by the warriors before being released for ransom.  It was also tragic for Millie’s grandmother, Elizabeth Carter Clifton Fitzpatrick, a powerful frontier woman who was rescued and made numerous attempts to get Millie back.  But it was not tragic for Millie, who was lovingly raised “as the daughter of wealthy, respected Kiowas”—and who became Ahtone Harjo’s great-grandmother.  In 1964, exactly a century later, Ahtone Harjo was given her great-grandmother’s Kiowa name, Sain-Toh-Oodie (Killed with a Blunt Arrow) in a formal ceremony.

Millie Durgan had a long and complicated lineage—which extends back to colonial times and forward to Ahtone Harjo, who proudly bears her Kiowa name.  Millie was a descendant of John Carter, a founder of the Watauga Settlement in 1772, one of the first non-British settlements, which is now part of Carter County, Tennessee.  Carter County was named after John’s son, Landon, and the county seat, Elizabethton, was named after Landon’s wife.  Landon had a slave (very likely his son) named Edmund who took the Carter name and moved with his family to Young County, Texas.  It was here, in 1864, that his great-granddaughter Millie Durgan was captured in The Elm Creek Raid. Millie became an accomplished beader and retained her traditional Kiowa beliefs and practices.  Indeed, “when the Baptist missionaries came to Rainy Mountain she steadfastly refused to take up the new religion.” Nonetheless, according to the Kiowa historian, George Hunt, the Indians used to say that she “showed her Texas ancestry.”

When she was a young girl . . . . a deer came charging through the camp, chased by some men or boys.  It was tired, but still able to defend itself by striking with its sharp front hoofs.  Millie dived at the deer, caught hold of it, and threw it just like a Texan cowboy bull-dogging a steer.  After the deer had been killed she claimed and received the hindquarter, which she was the first one to touch. The hide was also tanned for her to be made into a buckskin garment.

Millie seemed to have inherited her strength and steadfastness from her grandmother, Elizabeth Carter, who ran the family ranch before and after her first husband, Alexander Carter, was murdered.  Indeed, she took over the Carter Trading House, expanded it, and—despite her second husband’s leaving her and her third husband’s murder—she became one of the most successful women on the frontier before she was captured.  Millie, in turn, was an inspiration and a source of Ahtone Harjo’s strength in her role as a traditional Kiowa woman dedicated to maintaining and passing on the practices and traditions of her tribe.