A Kiowa tipi over 100 years old was “discovered” amidst the artifacts at the Oklahoma History Center by Matt Reed, Curator of the American Indian collections for the Oklahoma Historical Society. Reed, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, at first was reluctant to believe he had… what he had.
“For years it had been sitting here on the shelves at OHS (Oklahoma Historical Society), had basically been shuffled around with a number assigned to something completely unrelated but also made of canvas. And so people had just assumed that that's what it was and nobody had ever unrolled it,” Reed said.
“So as I unrolled it I quickly realized this is not some kind of crazy cowboy designed tipi, this is the real deal. And then I started referencing back to photographs I had seen in our collections, to film stills to “Daughter of Dawn” that we have here in our museum,” Reed said.
Daughter Of Dawn, is an 80-minute, six-reel silent film shot in May, June, and July of 1920 in the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma. It’s all Indian cast is made up of 300 Kiowas and Comanches who brought their own tipis, bows and arrows and clothes to be props used in the film, including that tipi, made from canvas.
“Historically this is the same weight of canvas that you would have seen on sailing ships, it’s the same material that the US Navy used to make sea bags out of. It’s the same material that they made the white jumper and trousers out of for summer Navy uniforms. So that's essentially the same material that this tipi is made out of. The same weight, same type of material.”
The tipi is in remarkably good shape, considering.
“Yeah, yeah, there's a lot of wear on it and just here recently we had a conservator come in and strengthen some of the seams, especially on the lower part of the tipi. That’s the only part that was weakening on it, it wasn't the fabric, it was the actual thread that was used to sew the fabric together” Reed said.
He then compared the tipi to photographs from the modern day Kiowa Black Leggings Warrior Society tipi, attempting to make connections, and immediately did.
“I was immediately making these connections and I couldn't believe that I was making these connections, so it took a couple of days to convince myself, that, yeah, the tipi that I'm looking at on the floor of the Collections area is the same tipi that I'm seeing in the photograph from 1916.”
Reed said for the Kiowas, the making of a tipi is a group effort and identifying the makers was a bit of a puzzle.
“I mean we're dealing with something that was found in Collections and so there's always going to be a question, you know, at some point of time about the history of the artifact,” Reed said.
“But I do know the rights of this design belong to the family of Charlie Buffalo and his wife Mary Buffalo. Traditionally, I've been told, Kiowa women would sew the tipi together and then any kind of design was left up to the men,” Reed said.
“And so, when we're talking about the construction there's a high possibility that Mary Buffalo sewed this and then Charlie Buffalo, his brother Silver Horn and his nephew Stephen Mopope and other men, other leading figures in the Kiowa Tribe, came and decorated what you see here.”
Names like Silver Horn and Stephen Mopope are well known names in the Native art world, almost legendary.
“Yeah, we're lucky that there's several of the guys, they actually, they have the name written below the pictograph so we know this is who they're talking about,” Reed said.
“We can identify Silver Horn based on his artwork. And I know from talking to family members that Stephen Mopope for all of his life talked about the high point of his career as an artist was decorating this tipi when he was 16 years old. And when you start looking at the pictographs you can pick out his work pretty easy because its a completely different style, very sophisticated and what not, especially when you consider he was 16 years old.
Stephen Mopope became a member of the internationally known artists group The Kiowa Five.
The tipi is covered with images, some faded, others still clear and bright, pictographs of lances and tomahawks representing battles won and battle scenes. Early tipis were made yearly with buffalo hides.
“At some point the material would have had to have changed to canvas just through necessity because the buffalo were gone. And then it just quit being made. The design was passed down through family to Charlie Buffalo,” Reed said.
“He had made some models, him and his brothers and several other Kiowa men, made some models for anthropologists from the Smithsonian and so forth. And then this version was made. So, 1914, 1916, I know it existed because of photographs.”
Reed, as a Native American person himself, knew that certain proprieties should be observed.
“Well in working in Collections I'm always kind of wary about the things that I just haphazardly pick up or open up and things like that. So I really kind of operate with museum collections probably a lot differently than the vast majority of museum curators,” Reed said.
“I did have the family come up and we smoked this off with cedar, took it outside and made sure that things were taken care of. That was probably a couple of weeks after I found it,” Reed said.
“So pretty early in the relationship with this tipi I made sure that we kind of took care of things so that we weren't going to disrespect anything.”
The Oklahoma History Center will have the tipi on public display as soon as their schedule allows.
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