Matt Reed knew he had found something special when he discovered a tepee buried among the treasures at the Oklahoma History Center.
“I found this large folded canvas five or six years ago in the museum,” said Reed, curator of American Indian History. “Our entire Indian collection used to be in one small room at the old building. I thought either it was a tepee a cowboy had made or it was the top of a covered wagon.”
His discovery was bigger than that.
When he examined the canvas four years ago, Reed saw it was not a manufactured tepee but one made by the Kiowas.
“The first thing I saw were the yellow and black stripes and I thought it was similar to a Kiowa Black Leggings tepee,” Reed said.
The other side of the canvas was full of pictographs of Indian chiefs and warriors in battles with other Indians, settlers and soldiers.
He looked at the center's archives and found a photo of a woman on a horse with a tepee behind her. The tepees looked alike, but he thought there was a smudge on the photo across one of the pictures of a horse and they were different, until he got the canvas tepee out and looked.
The horse had the same mark on it. It was the same tepee, one used in the filming of the 1920 silent movie, “The Daughter of Dawn,” starring an all-American Indian cast and filmed in the Wichita Mountains.
“It took me three or four days to convince myself,” Reed said. “I couldn't believe it.”
More investigation led to the discovery that the tepee was made in 1916 by Mary Buffalo, wife of Ohletoint, or Charley Buffalo.
Reed explained Ohletoint is the brother of Haungooah, or Silverhorn, who are both uncles to famous Kiowa Five artist Stephen Mopope.
History and design
Near the top of the tepee, in pencil, are several sketches of horses by Mopope. They are much more detailed than the rest of the drawings, which were made with colored pencils, crayons, pens or anything they could use to draw on the canvas.
The design is based on a Kiowa tepee built around 1833, about the time the Osages attacked the Kiowa in what became The Cutthroat Gap Massacre.
Pictographs show stories of warriors shooting arrows and guns, victims lying on the ground or fighting back. The chiefs are identified by their shields, the soldiers are dressed in blue; Navajos in buckskins are among the conquered.
The other side of the quilt is the yellow and black stripes that first caught Reed's attention.
“This tepee is Kiowa history from 1830 to 1917,” Reed said. “The stripes are the south side, the pictographs go on the north side because the door always faces east.”
Conserving the tepee
Though the years in storage protected much of the tepee, time still had done some damage, but the fascinating history was enough to bring in a textile curator to repair it for a future exhibit.
Reed applied for, and received, a grant from the Oklahoma Cultural Heritage Trust to have it restored and hired textile conservator Anne Murray.
Raised in Oklahoma City, Murray has a graduate degree from New York University. She also has worked at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.
“My mother is a weaver and spinner,” she said. “I also worked in Colorado restoring Navajo blankets and oriental rugs.”
After examining the tepee, which is spread out in a basement storage room, Murray was able to glean that two women had sewn the canvas together, one much more skilled than the other — the skill level on the seams, while visible to Murray, can't be improved, only reinforced.
“The tepee is in fairly decent shape,” she said, emphasizing that she does not restore objects, she conserves them.
Reed isn't sure how the Kiowa tepee got to the Oklahoma History Center, but believes it could have been donated when Charley and Mary Buffalo donated several other things.
“We have a Kiowa game, a saddle and a horn spoon they donated,” he said. “Maybe they donated the tepee at that time. There's a high probability we have had it since 1924 or 25.”
The center also has a restored copy of “The Daughter of Dawn.” Their original copy was on nitrate film so it was sent to be restored by the National Film Institute in Los Angeles.
“It's a crazy story,” Reed said. “It's a Victorian take on an Indian love story.”
Reed says it's a “love square, not a love triangle” and the film used several tepees for the camp. A buffalo hunt was staged for the film and, while it's a silent movie, the language in it is Kiowa, as are the clothes and the dances.
“Remember, this movie was made during the time Indians weren't allowed to speak their native language, or dress in their style of clothing and dancing was forbidden,” Reed said. “It was one way for them to get around the laws of the day.”
No specific exhibit date is set for either the film or display of the tepee.
Conserving the tepee
The stains on the tepee are oily, which means taking them out could spoil the art. That means they stay.
To strengthen the seams, conservator Anne Murray used the same-size needle and the same holes originally used to sew them, leaving little trace she ever was there. She also repaired a few small holes in the canvas.
She credits its years forgotten in storage for its good condition, but will improve its storage when she's finished so it will stay that way.
Her work on this tepee took about two days to complete and she will examine another tepee they have, one she and Curator Matt Reed believe to have been used as a church.