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Borderlands and Migrations Kiowa 5

December, 2016

(Production photos and video provided courtesy of Ralph Petrosky)

Voluntary migration intersects geographic, gender, cultural, socio/political, and artistic borders in Russ Tall Chief’s play, “Jacobson and the Kiowa Five.” Tall Chief’s well researched docu-style play, is a dramatization of the lives and celebrated international careers of five Kiowa visual artists recruited from their rural reservation community by Professor Oscar Jacobson to attend the University of Oklahoma’s Fine Arts program in 1927. Tall Chief gleaned much of the characters’ dialogue in the play from the artists’ actual words published between 1927 and 1937 in memoirs, newspaper articles, interviews and books.  Much of the dialogue crosses the borders of the “fourth wall” found in western theatre convention and the characters frequently address the audience directly. Set in time just three years after the federal government recognized Native Americans as U.S. “citizens,” the action of the play is driven by the character’s acts of migrations and border crossings. These acts encompass both metaphoric and physical migrations as well as the navigation of cross-cultural metaphoric and physical borders during their time at the University of Oklahoma and beyond.

​Production History Borders and Migrations

During its early development, the play was performed in 2009 and in 2011 in Jacobson’s former residence in Norman, Oklahoma, now known as  the Jacobson House Native Art Center. When the play was completed, “Jacobson and Kiowa Five” was performed as a staged reading during the Oklahoma City Theatre Company's Native American New Play Festival in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in April, 2013.

Tall Chief structures the play actively resisting the borders of a single “genre” found in most western theatrical forms. The play is a fusion of cultural memory, witnessing, ceremony, language, story, song, dance, and painting.  Tall Chief further challenged the borders of western theatrical convention in his 2009 and in 2011 staging of Jacobson and the Kiowa Five by using Jacobson’s former residence as the performance venue rather than a western theatre space. The Jacobson House Native Art Center on the University of Oklahoma campus was custom built by Jacobson and his wife between 1916-1917 and remained his residence until his death in 1966.  The house now belongs to the University of Oklahoma and is on the National Historic Register and the Oklahoma Historical Society's Landmarks List.  

The Jacobson House staging removed the borders between the audience and actors typically found in western theatrical venues. Instead, the action migrated through the Jacobson home and yard with the audience following interspersed among the actors in the various locations. The audience migrated from bordered spectators to experiential witnesses and participants. Several of the photos show numerous audience members among the actors and part of the performance.

Time and place are fluid and unfixed borders in Native expression and appear by various means in Native American theatre. Enacting the story in the home where Jacobson and the Kiowa artists once frequented permeated borders and re-presented a fluid intersection between time and place. Temporal and generational borders further converged with the casting of several actors who descend from the Kiowa Five artists.  According to Tall Chief, the casting of descendants was unintentional. By speaking their ancestors’ words, the actors themselves crossed artistic borders into memory, witnessing an embodied storying.  Rather than crafting their “performances” with “technique,” the actors migrated to become witnesses through ancestral and cultural memory. The Kiowa Five themselves also migrated from the spirit realm to the physical realm as embodied stories told through their relatives during these performances, thus ensuring the continuation of their narratives in their future generations to come. Tall Chief’s casting and staging defied western theatrical borders by expressing the cyclical relationships between the past present and future and the power of place.

Watch the performances at the Jacobson House:  

Geographical/Physical Borders and Migrations

The action is set among national and international borders ranging from locations in Kiowa country, Oklahoma; the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma; and in Prague, Czechoslovakia. In the play and during their lives, The Kiowa Five voluntarily migrated to these borders to pursue their artistic endeavors and share their artwork with the world. During their time at the University of Oklahoma, the artists and their work traversed the globe voluntarily migrating and crossing borders throughout the United States and Europe in art exhibitions. These migrations and border crossings encompassed a range of Native expression blurring the borders between visual art and performance as the artists traveled with their art and frequently showcased traditional Native dance and music as part of the exhibitions.  In Act 1 scene 3, the Kiowa artists joke and tease one another as they paint in the art studio at the University of Oklahoma. They reminisce of the physical border crossings and migrations that were central to Kiowa traditional life pre-Indian Removal Act. The characters disparage Andrew Jackson who ordered the Kiowas’ forced migration to Southwestern Oklahoma in 1867.

SPENCER ASAH: I wonder where we would be today if not for Andrew Jackson?

STEPHEN MOPOPE: The White House.

SPENCER ASAH: I say we paint it red and call it the Red House.

MONROE TSATOKE: I think we would probably still be in the Black Hills.

In Act 1 scene 4, Lynn Riggs, renowned Cherokee playwright is a character not seen in the play, but his presence is inferred in a scene during a phone call with Jacobson. Tall Chief dramatizes the circumstances of the call with Riggs who calls Jacobson in distress seeking career advice. In the scene, Jacobson urges Riggs to migrate to Santa Fe to improve his career visibility. Biographically, Riggs migrated to Santa Fe for health reasons.

In Act 1 scene 8 Kiowa Five artist Lois Smokey, the only female artist who attended the university with her mother serving as her chaperone, bids farewell to the Jacobsons after only a few months. She tells the Jacobsons she will migrate back to Kiowa country and raise a family according to Kiowa tradition.  It is unclear if this choice is voluntary or involuntary. In the previous scene 7, during an interview with Savoie Lottinville, a University of Oklahoma journalist student, Smokey shares the  tension between studying and creating art rather than following traditional Kiowa gender expectations.  Smokey’s conflict is further discussed in TRADITIONAL KIOWA GENDER BORDERS AND MIGRATIONS.

In Act 2 scene 4, Sophie Brousse, Jacobson’s wife invites witnessing about the Kiowa people in her direct address to the audience. In her speech, she reinforces the traditional Kiowa lifeway of migration as was told to her from the artists: “Several of their old people remember that in their childhood they roamed about hunting buffalo and making bold raids.” Brousse’s speech also chronicles the Kiowas involuntary confinement to borders: “However, for several decades, the Kiowas have been peacefully settled on their reservation near the Wichita Mountains, where they are trying, with remarkable success, to transform themselves in one generation from nomads and hunters into farmers and husbandmen. It is a fortunate thing that, although the mode of living may change, the spirit of the race is not entirely annihilated. The Kiowas have kept the love of their old rituals; the tribal dances are still held, the songs of old are still sung, the stories of days gone by bring still the same wonder.”

In Act 2 scene 7, Jack Hokeah returns to Norman, Oklahoma following an inspirational visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Hokeah informs Jacobson of his plan to leave the University and voluntarily migrate to Santa Fe to pursue his art career.

Socio/Political Borders and Migrations

In Act 1 scene 3, the Kiowa men paint and mock the metaphorical Kiowa migration and border crossing into “U.S. citizenry” and new appointed voting “rights.”  In 1924, Federal Indian Policy granted “U.S. citizenship” to Native Americans. 

STEPHEN MOPOPE: What did Grover Cleveland do to have his picture replaced by Andrew Jackson’s on the $20 dollar bill?

SPENCER ASAH: I don’t know, but it must have been REALLY bad.

STEPHEN MOPOPE: Who picked Andrew Jackson to replace him?  Who decides that? Shouldn’t there be a vote?

MONROE TSATOKE: A vote?  When did you get so political?

STEPHEN MOPOPE: Now that I have the right to vote I plan to exercise it.

Later in Act 2 scene 4, the Kiowa artists recount the socio-political borders they navigated during a U.S. art exhibition tour.

JACK HOKEAH: I don’t think Indians have ever been seen in the cities we’ve been in.

JAMES AUCHIAH: That was quite the awkward incident in the cafeteria in Springfield, MO.

STEPHEN MOPOPE: Ha, brother.

I guess it wasn’t enough that we had to enter through the back door in the kitchen.

Traditional Kiowa Gender Borders and Migrations

Lois Smokey, the only female artist among the Kiowa Five voluntarily migrates and crosses the borders of traditional Kiowa gender expectations by painting and attending the University of Oklahoma. In Act 1 scene 4, Martha Tsatoke, Monroe’s wife reveals Smokey has defied Kiowa gender traditions and her reputation has migrated into the borders of scrutiny.

SOPHIE BROUSSE: You are very expressive, Martha. Have you ever considered taking up some form of art, such as painting, like Lois?

MARTHA TSATOKE: No, Mrs. Jacobson. What Lois is doing is considered man’s work. A lot of people don’t think she should be here painting with the men.  It’s not ladylike, especially being so young.

SOPHIE BROUSSE: But her mother is with her.  Doesn’t that make it more acceptable?

MARTHA TSATOKE: Not to me. My interest is only in my family. That is what is important to me; taking care of Monroe and Peggy. That is how I was taught. Doing anything else in my opinion would be disrespecting my elders.

In Act 1 scene 6, Lois and Martha wait outside a tepee while the men are inside

conducting ceremony. Martha chastises Lois for her choices:  

MARTHA TSATOKE: What I don’t understand is how you decide when to do woman’s work and when to do man’s work?

LOIS SMOKEY: I don’t understand.

MARTHA TSATOKE: I mean, taking water into the tepee is a woman’s job, but painting is a man’s job.

LOIS SMOKEY: Times are changing, Martha. Kiowa ways are changing, too. Look at where we live? Look at how we live? Our ways are so different now from how they were even ten or twenty years ago. The whole world is changing.  We have to change with it.

MARTHA TSATOKE: I don’t know why we have to act any way but Kiowa.

LOIS SMOKEY: We have to move forward. 

MARTHA TSATOKE: You are either Kiowa or you are not. And you are either a woman or you are not. If you are Kiowa then you should act like a Kiowa. If you are a woman then you should act like a woman.

LOIS SMOKEY: Painting makes me happy.

MARTHA TSATOKE: I am happy to be a Kiowa woman. You should be happy to be a Kiowa woman and you should behave like a Kiowa woman.

In Act 1 scene 7 during Smokey’s interview with Savoie Lottinville, she states, “I am very happy and honored to be here at school at OU with my Kiowa brothers. It’s hard though, being a Kiowa woman and painting is very difficult. Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing the right thing by being here.

Kiowa Cultural/Traditional Borders and Migrations

In Act 1 scene 3 cultural borders are breached during a discussion about art between Jacobson, his wife and the Kiowa Five.

OSCAR JACOBSON: Arguably Rubenesque, but you would hardly see one of these Kiowa painters depicting a voluptuous nude woman, as Ruben did.

SOPHIE BROUSSE: If you married a 16-year-old girl at your ripe old age, as Ruben did, I bet you would turn from painting landscapes to nudes overnight. That would be like you marrying Lois, although I couldn’t see Lois posing nude even for a Kiowa artist.

(Lois Smokey exits. Spencer Asah goes after her…)

MONROE TSATOKE: I beg your pardon, Mr. and Mrs. Jacobson.  We consider nudity a private matter.

SOPHIE BROUSSE: Perhaps the female form in its most natural state is better appreciated by the French.

OSCAR JACOBSON: I have to disagree with you once again, ma cheri. We Scandinavians enjoy a robust appreciation of the female form—of any race or nationality—we do not discriminate!

MONROE TSATOKE: That being said, perhaps your appreciation of the female form is better left private.

OSCAR JACOBSON: Oh my, Sophie.  It appears we have crossed a cultural barrier-

SOPHIE BROUSSE: …a cultural barricade, in my opinion; one that needs crossing.

Language Borders and Migrations

Borders between the languages of French, Spanish, English and Kiowa blur and usage voluntarily migrates back and forth between the native and non-native characters.

Although the dialogue is written in English intermingled with French and Spanish, Tall Chief invites the actors to speak passages in Kiowa.

Sophie Brousse speaks French in various places throughout the play and Martha Tsatoke learns a few French phrases.

Jacobson and Sophie Brousse learn a few Kiowa words and speak them to the artists.

In Act 2 scene 7, the borders of a French nursery rhyme song merge with a hand drum beat when Monroe Tsatoke sings Frère Jacques in French to the Jacobson’s young daughter, Yolande while accompanying the song on a hand drum.

Spiritual Borders and Migrations

In Act 1, scene 6 the Kiowa men conduct a Native American Church ceremony to doctor and pray for healing for Monroe Tsatoke’s  illness. Instead of turning to western medicine to cure his tuberculosis, Tsatoke remains within the borders of his traditional and spiritual practices:

MONROE TSATOKE: I would like to ask for your prayers, brothers. I have not been well and I am afraid to go to the white man’s doctor for fear of what he will tell me. Whatever my illness is, I would like to be treated by our medicine, not the white man’s medicine. My healing will come through this way—our church way.

Monroe’s wife has known him all his life. She describes him migrating between the borders of the physical realm and the spirit world:

MARTHA TSATOKE: I have always felt that Monroe lives in a different world than the rest of us. It is as if he has one foot in our world and one foot in the spirit world. He sees what others do not see or maybe what they cannot see. I think that is why art is so important to him. Art is the only way he can show the rest of us what he sees.

Many of the Kiowa artists transcended the borders of the secular and the sacred by praying while in the act of painting. In Western ideology, their painting subjects migrated from the sacred realm into the secular realm. The borders between “art” and the traditional lifeways in Kiowa terms are non-existent.  The artists tell Jacobson there is no Kiowa word for “art.”  The artists frequently centered their subjects on spiritual images associated with the Native American Church, and the traditional ceremonial dances. Lois Smokey’s painting subjects often centered on females, children and families.  The role of motherhood is traditionally regarded as a females’ most sacred calling, and children are considered sacred members of the community.

Propriety and Ethical Borders and Migrations

In Act 2 scene 7, Susie Peters appears at the Jacobson home accusing Jacobson of exploiting the Kiowa Five and refutes his public claim of “discovering” Indian art. Instead it is Peters who may have morally migrated and crossed the borders of unethical impropriety. Sophie Brousse responds to Suzie Peters:

SOPHIE BROUSSE: Martha Tsatoke mentioned something to me one day that I thought absurd up until this very moment. She said that you played on superstition, Ms. Peters, by convincing these boys that they owed their ‘painting power’ to you. She said that you told them that if they failed to pay you a commission on their art sales that they would lose their power.

When questioned by Jacobson, the artists Monroe Tsatoke and Jack Hokeah remain silent.  Peters is cornered and leaves abruptly without explanation of Sophie Brousse’s claim. Following her departure, Monroe Tsatoke’s offers these only words to Jacobson and his wife:

MONROE TSATOKE: It is a shame that there must be this mountain between you and Ms. Peters. I can say that the three of you are some of the most important people, Kiowa and non- Kiowa, in our lives.”

Artistic Borders and Migrations

Traditional Kiowa painting originated on deer, elk skin and tepees serving as the bases. The Kiowa Five migrated the traditional bases to paper during their residency at the University of Oklahoma. This artistic migration allowed their paintings to cross artistic and geographical borders into a national and international view galvanizing contemporary Native American art as an American art form.  Tall Chief states in the introductory notes of the play, “The Kiowa Five’s work marks the genesis of contemporary Native art in Oklahoma as well as Native arts as its own American art form. The art which emerged from this group of determined and passionate Kiowas was a visual memoir of their own religio-cultural experiences as well as the preservation of the cultural memories of their Kiowa elders, of life before the reservation, government schools and assimilation. While the art of the Kiowa Five is important in its artistic merit, the Kiowa aesthetic preserved in their paintings is also a vitally important archive of Kiowa culture. Kiowa and other American Indian artists that have followed the Kiowa Five to the University Of Oklahoma School Of Art continue to preserve the history of contemporary Native art while also evolving Native art in their own artistic voices.“

The Kiowa Five’s artistry resisted boundaries beyond their paintings. Their talents and pursuits migrated through and among a range of traditional forms of Kiowa expression. They were accomplished traditional contest dancers, singers, hand drummers and flute makers.  Often their national and international exhibitions featured the Kiowa artists’ traditional dancing, singing and drumming alongside their visual art. 

The Kiowa paintings themselves physically migrated and crossed national and international borders in the numerous exhibition tours Jacobson curated during the artist’s time at the University of Oklahoma. By the play’s end and as in their lives,  the artists were commissioned murals at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., the Santa Fe Indian School, the University of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Historical Society in Oklahoma City, the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko and the Anadarko Federal Building, among others. Kiowa artistic expression once again migrated and crossed borders in these murals transcending to become public phenomenon accessible to all within the mainstream view.