Imprisoned but Empowered: Cheyenne Warrior Artists at Fort Marion

By Veronica Pasfield, Ph.D., Journalist, Independent Curator & Museum Decolonizer, Bay Mills Indian Community Member

Nock-ko-ist, also known as James Bear’s Heart (Cheyenne, 1851 – 1882), “Warriors with Shields, Tipis, and Headdresses,” 1875 – 1878, colored pencil on paper. Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 1997.07.020

In 1875, following the Red River War, the United States government ordered the arrest of 72 Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Caddo, and Arapaho warriors. Taken from their families, most thought they were being sent away to die.  Shackled, they were loaded onto trains and sent east. Nearly four weeks later, after traveling on the St. Johns River past the property that would become the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, they arrived at Fort Marion (also known as the Castillo de San Marcos) in St. Augustine. For the next three years, government agents worked to assimilate the imprisoned warriors. 

For more than a hundred years, historians and government agents told and retold this narrative. However, the Cheyenne have their own story to tell: a story highlighting the journey east, as well as the life they left behind. A story told in art through drawings created by Cheyenne warrior artists while imprisoned at Fort Marion. 

A new exhibition organized by the Cummer Museum, “Imprisoned but Empowered: Cheyenne Warrior Artists at Fort Marion,” explores this chapter in our collective history. On display through December 5, the exhibition features deeply personal works that offer a window into the hearts and minds of men exiled for defending their families, cultures, and territories. 

This exhibition is drawn from the Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. It was an honor to curate this exhibition alongside Gordon Yellowman, Director of Language and Cultural Programs, Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, and Eric D. Singleton, Ph.D., Curator of Ethnology, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma also shared oral histories from the descendants of their society leaders. 

“The Museum is humbled to be able to share this important period in our regional and national history with the Northeast Florida community. Working with the project’s curators to bring this exhibition to fruition has been a powerful experience, and I hope our visitors can feel that authenticity when experiencing these works of art,” says Holly Keris, the museum’s J. Wayne and Delores Barr Weaver Chief Curator. “It is easy for history to reimagine the Cheyenne warriors imprisoned at Fort Marion as an anonymous collective. However, they were individuals, with lives, experiences, families, and voices, and we are proud to honor their perspectives.”

Most commonly known as Southern Cheyenne, Tsitsistas people are among the most revered and studied tribes on the Southern Plains. They migrated from the northwestern edge of the Great Lakes region in the early 1700s. They received profound teachings from prophet Motsé’eóeve (Sweet Medicine) about the proper way to structure their society. The artists in this exhibition educate us about the richness of the Tsitsistas’s way of life, if we will take the time to learn. Too often, Tsitsistas have been left out of the telling of their own histories—and the interpretation of their highly valued cultural expressions in museums around the world.

The story of the Fort Marion POWs reveals much about the nation that imprisoned them. Many treaties were made and broken with tribes in Indian Territory after the conclusion of the American Civil War. When the Southern Plains tribes couldn’t be conquered militarily in the 1860s and ’70s, the U.S. tried to starve them out. They created resident Indian agencies to enact federal policies meant to control everyday tribal life. The Bureau of Indian Affairs prohibited buffalo hunting and traditional religious ceremonies. Agents ordered Indian children into schools designed to strip them of their tribal languages and cultures.

O-kuh-ha-tuh, also known as Making Medicine and David Pendleton Oakerhater (Cheyenne, b. c. 1847), “Bison Hunt,” 1875 – 1878, colored pencil on paper. Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 1996.27.0545

The Buffalo War, 1874-5

Southern Plains chiefs banded together to stop American expansionism and oppression. Violence spread like prairie fire across Indian Territory, culminating in the Buffalo War of 1874-75.

Cheyenne military warrior societies upheld sacred oaths to protect the welfare of the tribe. Boys trained from childhood in the skills of war, hunting, and carrying oneself with honor. The artists in this exhibition represented the Dog Soldier, Bowstring, and Lance Societies. Cheyenne Dog Soldiers attempted to hold the borders of their historic territory and the buffalo grazing lands. Dog Soldiers disrupted and attacked supply wagons, surveyors, and telegraph and railroad work. Just as the U.S. soldiers did across Cheyenne territory, the Dog Soldiers took the lives of noncombatants.

Against the “hostiles,” the U.S. Department of War ordered “total war” tactics—used most recently against the South during the Civil War. Frontier regiments terrorized tribal families caught off-reservation and burned tipis, food stores, clothing, and bedding. A harsh, hungry winter of war led to springtime surrender of warriors across Indian Territory. Most of the Cheyenne Society warriors surrendered at Darlington Agency in April of 1875. Leaders in Washington, D.C. debated the best way to punish these “hostiles.” The POWs represented the Southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, and Caddo people. There was no trial. In the end, the Department of War exiled 72 ringleaders to a faraway prison fort in Florida called Fort Marion.

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Author: Arbus

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