Students in “History of Twentieth Century Art” last fall had the option to research objects in the OSUMA collection, and I’ve been featuring highlights from their papers this spring. This week’s post is adapted from research and writing by Kyra Guffey, who chose to work on Jerome Tiger’s 1966 color lithograph, Old Memories.
Jerome Tiger’s 1966 lithograph, Old Memories, tells a story about Native American history and how the Creek Indians changed over time. Its aesthetics reflect and comment on the social and economic conditions of a changing world.
The entire background of Tiger’s lithograph is baby blue. The horses are blue, and even the hair of the old men is blue. Within this overall blue field, there are three older men sitting in chairs in the foreground, huddled around each other as if they are telling stories. The lithograph has a very open composition. The image area is large, while the subjects are comparatively small. But the negative space is not dead space; rather, it creates the illusion that nothing else at that moment matters except reliving their memories. Maybe they are so deep in conversation that all they see is their old memories.
Each man in the foreground wears the same outfit, but in different colors: a cowboy hat with a feather, a bandana, long sleeves, pants, and cowboy boots. The feathers in their hats and their dark skin—along with the scene in the background—suggest that these men are Native Americans. To Native Americans, a feather is more than something that falls off of a bird. It symbolizes honor, wisdom, strength, power, trust, freedom and many more things. Only chieftains, warriors, and braves were ever awarded a feather. This indicates that the men in the painting were most likely warriors or braves.
This notion that the men are Native American is further confirmed by the images—their “old memories”—that are in the background. There, too, there are three dark skinned men. They each have long, black hair draped in feathers, tied in a ponytail. They are riding horses while chasing horses that appear to be sprinting from them very quickly. One man has his arm up while he attempts to lasso the nearby horse. The man closest to the viewer is pulling hard on his reins, his face filled with tension but also determination. The last man appears as if he did indeed lasso the horse he was chasing after.
Jerome Tiger created the lithograph Old Memories in 1966. Tiger’s painting philosophy was simple, “he painted what he knew and lived.” As a full-blooded Creek-Seminole Native American, he painted his culture from the inside. During the 1960s, Creek Indians retained some of their traditions. They still played stickball, did stomp dances, small children still wore tasseled belts, and women still cooked over an open fire. By the 1960s, however, they had already been assimilating for over one hundred years.
Policies encouraging Creek assimilation began in 1796, when U.S. Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins “implemented an assimilation policy that emphasized missions, education, and individualized farming.” By the 1870s, Plains Indians had essentially stopped living a nomadic and traditional lifestyle. The 1887 Dawes Severalty Act, “called for the breakup of the reservations and the treatment of Indians as individuals rather than tribes,” and had the effect of breaking down Native American tribes and their traditional way of life.
Native American assimilation and Americanization policies encouraged—and in some cases forced—Native Americans to adopt American customs and values, including attire, language, and religion. The lithograph “Old Memories,” is a reflection of those assimilation policies, and the attempt to modernize Native Americans. This lithograph shows what Creek Indians looked like and certain traditions before they were modernized. The Creek men in the upper left hand corner of the painting, are wearing a traditional “breech-cloth…[with] hair long [and] decorated with feathers.”
However, several decades later, the same men in the lower right hand corner, are dressed very differently. Now they are no longer wearing the traditional clothes. Instead, they are wearing jeans and cowboys hats—which are both not Native American traditions. This makes the viewer question why and how the men in Tiger’s lithograph have changed so drastically over time. Were they forced to change? Did they change on their own? Although the men have clearly been modernized, they still have long hair decorated in feathers. They hold on to their traditions while still accepting change.