From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
Red Earth Honored One dedicated to preserving tribal culture
Gordon Yellowman Sr. becomes the fifth Cheyenne & Arapaho artist to be named the Honored One.
Growing up, Gordon Yellowman Sr. always knew what he was getting in his Christmas presents.
“Every Christmas, I’d get art supplies. I never got toys. I already knew what I’d get for Christmas. Later on, you know, it was ‘Why don’t I get toys?’ And it was my parents’ way to … support my art. Today, I thank them for it because if it wasn’t for that, I probably wouldn’t have pursued my art,” he said.
A member of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, Yellowman, 52, of El Reno, will be recognized as the 2010 Red Earth Festival Honored One this weekend during the 24th annual Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival at the Cox Convention Center.
Each year, the Red Earth board of directors selects an American Indian master visual artist as the Honored One based on nominations from fellow artists. Past recipients include such acclaimed artists as Allan Houser, Mike Larsen and Doc Tate Nevaquaya.
“Gordon is an outstanding artist, citizen, and an Oklahoma role model for all people,” Mary Jo Watson, director of the University of Oklahoma’s School of Art and Art History, wrote in nominating Yellowman. “One of the most important aspects of his life is his service to his tribe and the greater Oklahoma Indian community.”
His late father, Everett H. Yellowman, was principal chief of the traditional peacemakers of the Cheyenne known as the Council of Forty-Four. At age 16, the younger Yellowman was named a Cheyenne Peace Chief. He now serves as one of the four principal chiefs of his tribe.
He becomes the fifth Cheyenne & Arapaho Honored One, following Archie Blackowl, Dick West, Charles Pratt and Harvey Pratt. Yellowman remembers West visiting his father and going over his paintings to get the accurate history and stories behind what he was depicting in his work.
“I think of those gentlemen of caliber as artists who were extraordinary and made many contributions not only to the state of Oklahoma but to this world as well with their art. … Those men were true artists, true masters, and for me to be recognized with their name is certainly an honor,” Yellowman said.
“The gift that we have as artists, we share that through education and we share that through our media and our form of art. Not only are we sharing it, we’re preserving true stories of the cultural ways of our lives.”
Preserving his heritage is a driving passion in Yellowman’s life. He works as the language coordinator for Cheyenne & Arapaho education department, helping teach the tribal language through children’s programs and college courses. He teaches as an adjunct professor in the art department at the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribal College at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford. He also is working on a bachelor’s degree in art history through OU’s Native American Studies program.
“You can’t have language without culture, you can’t have art without culture, you can’t have traditions without culture. The art is a very
significant part of the culture, and through that, it’s evolving into the whole representation of the people, of the nation. That art reflects the beauty of that nation,” Yellowman said.
As an artist, he depicts traditional Cheyenne scenes in a flat ledger art style, so called because ledger books were a common source of paper for Plains Indian artists in the 19th century. But he incorporates modern hues of teal, purple and pink into his work.
“My art I think is very unique because I do a lot of research. I research Cheyenne ledger art and Arapaho ledger art because I know that back then, those artists were actually developing Polaroids of what was happening at that time period, from about the late 1870s on to the 1900s,” he said. “I incorporate the old-style ledger art into the contemporary style that I use, and I create my own ledger style. … I appreciate the colors that we have now because colors are a representation of our culture, our ways of life.”
Red Earth President Jonna Kauger Kirschner said Yellowman’s great artistic talent and dedication to mentoring other artists makes him a wonderful selection as Honored One
“He brings the tradition and the contemporary together. We sometimes have a stereotypical image of what Native American art is. Yes, while it may have started out as flat and more into ledger drawings, I think Gordon shows how you take that traditional art and you bring it into a contemporary visual image. He’s just very talented,” she said.