Kiowa artist Barthell Little Chief opts for Indian artwork, not artwork about Indians

ANADARKO, Okla. - Barthell Little Chief is a successful Kiowa artist.

He travels throughout the United States to galleries and art shows. Art is not only his passion, it is his livelihood. Little Chief is a professional artist, talented and well versed in his culture as are many Indian artists, but the similarities stop there.

His refusal to cross cultures in his artwork has cost him money over the years, but he said he deeply believes in Indian artwork, not artwork about Indians.

During the recent Red Earth Art Show, Little Chief took a moment to reflect on cultural changes observed during his lifetime.

"When I was little and we would go to pow wows, you could look and see - those people are Osage, those are Northern People over there, those are Navajo People over there. Everybody looked and did their own culture. Now we're all 'Indians. I always talk about doing a painting with a guy who has a Seminole shirt on, a Navajo squash blossom on, a big beaded belt and a war bonnet. It doesn't mean anything."

What Little Chief sees is a movement toward generic Indian art and away from cultural identity. He said he is one of the few Indian artists who actually paint about their own culture. He is steadfast in his belief that Indian artists should paint their own heritage, culture, beliefs and traditions. Little Chief said he believes that following his heart is the right thing to do.

"My Daddy would say, respect other people's ways. I don't paint Seminoles wrestling alligators. I don't paint Navajos living in hogans. But everyone has jumped on our culture, the Plains Indians ... It isn't Indian art anymore, it is art about Indians."

His paintings reflect his Kiowa heritage. Symbols unique to the tribe come alive on his canvas and in his sculpture.

Little Chief recalled an offer: "I turned down a commission one time with the Appaloosa Horse Journal. They wanted me to do a leopard appaloosa with a Navajo rider with a mesa in the background - a guaranteed sell-out on the poster.

"I told them I couldn't do it because I wasn't a Navajo. I respect other people's ways. I could have painted them a generic Plains Indian ... I'm not a Navajo, I'm not a Seminole, I'm not a Seneca or anything like that. I respect their ways and their culture. I am one of the last guys who is doing that."

Little Chief said he believes he probably lost out on a lot of money, but money isn't the reason he became an artist.

Illustrating what he sees as a loss of cultural identity among Indian artists, he said, "I always use the analogy, you go to Europe and get the finest oil painter. Bring him over here and let him live with the Kiowas and Comanches for a year. Let him go to their ceremonies or whatever it is they are doing now. He will take sketches and photographs. He will go back to his studio in Germany or wherever it is and he will be fully accurate, but it won't be Indian art. It will be art about Indians.

"Ninety percent of the Indians are doing the same thing. We have become "Indians" we have lost our identity, we have lost our own cultures."

Little Chief said his explanation more often than not makes other Indian artists mad. "They will say, 'Oh we love our Indian ways. We respect our Indian ways.' The Indian way is for us, do your own culture. Now days I see there are Kiowas who are setting turquoise, Navajos are doing beadwork. It's all mixed up. I still rail against it. I am as close to a traditionalist in that respect as you can get."

is paintings depict Kiowa legends and stories. His paintbrush is bringing the old ways and stories to life in vivid colors and textures for new generations.

"I am a keeper of a medicine arrow that the Kiowa have. I am the fifth one to have it. A lot of Kiowas don't even know this. I belong to the Kiowa Gourd Clan, which was an honorary warrior society. Now its kind of like 49s, which were Kiowa war journey songs. Everybody has taken it. It's a social dance now. It's a joke now - they party, they drink - but it was originally Kiowa war journey songs."

Little Chief said he tries to make artwork that people like, but still refuses to paint another tribe's culture. "This is what I do for a living, but again I try to make it relate to my culture."

Sticking with his ideals has been successful for Little Chief who has been able to be both artist and businessman. He has been able to be a commercial success in a highly competitive field without losing his own cultural identity.

"That's where I'm at. I'm sticking with the deal. I've gone this far and, like I have said, it has cost me money once in a while and it makes some people mad.

"It makes gallery people mad sometimes when I am talking about it. Out of respect to the older people and my elders, I'm too old to start changing now. Some things are more important than money and this is one of them."