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Artistic license vs. historical accuracy in proposed statue

By Corene Brisendine

A sculpture of a Kaw Indian man proposed for the roundabout at Bluemont Avenue and Fourth Street might not be entirely historically accurate, according to experts and scholarly texts about the tribe that once lived here.

City commissioners on Tuesday made a preliminary approval of the design by artist Tom Ford, but they expressed concerns about certain aspects of the dress and appearance of the piece. Some concerns were primarily aesthetic, but others had to do with the accuracy of the artist’s representation of the Kaw people (also called the Kanza). How important that accuracy is depends largely on what tribal leaders think of the piece. Commissioners chose to submit the proposal to the Kaw cultural and tribal councils for approval before approving a final design of the sculpture.

Historians who study the American Indian tribe rely heavily on the journal accounts of Thomas Say, a member of an expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains in 1819. Say spent several weeks with the Kaw during the trip, and recorded their culture, dress, and appearance.

The sculpture’s first noticeable inaccuracy is at the head.  In “Account of an Expedition from Pittsburg to the Rocky Mountains: Performed in the Years 1819 and 1920,” Edwin James compiled the journals of Say and the other explorers. According to James’ book, Say wrote that the Kaw men “scrupulously” plucked the hair from their heads, leaving only a narrow strip running from the top of their heads to the back. He said this strip was left to give other American Indian tribes the honor of scalping the Kaw if they were captured. He said the Kaw men either dyed the hair “vermillion” or adorned the tuft with a single eagle tail feather — white with a black tip — running “transversely” with the line of hair or a deer tail.

William Unrau, who relied heavily on Say’s account, added in his book, “The Kansa Indians: A History of the Wind People, 1673-1873,” that the chiefs often adorned their hair with the tail of a deer, which Say thought looked “most handsome.”  The proposed sculpture has a strap of leather adorning the forehead with the mohawk longer and perhaps adorned with a line of feathers.

The other missing feature of the head is ear “dressings” — basically large earrings. Say remarked that the Kaw men’s “outer cartilage of the ear is cut through in three places, and upon the rim, thus separated, various ornaments are suspended, such as wampum, string beads, silver or tin trinkets, etc.” Unrau included “porcelain sticks” in the litany of trinkets suspended from the ears. Several drawings and photographs of the Kaw men in Unrau’s book show all the men wearing these ear dressings, a distinct feature of the Kaw.

Ford, the sculptor, left out the earrings, but he did represent the necklace accurately. Both Say and Unrau wrote that the men often wore strings of bear claws around their necks.

Where Ford appears to have taken another liberty with the traditional dress is on the sculpture’s shoulder. Thrown over one shoulder, the sculpture appears to have some sort of animal skin. This is another inaccuracy of Kaw dress. The men left their upper bodies bare, according to the books. And when a covering was needed, it was in the form of a blanket, often dyed red or blue. The men did, however, wear them draped over one shoulder as depicted in the sculpture.

In one hand the sculpture is holding a spear. This is another deviation from the norm for Kaw warriors. According to Unrau, the men carried “lances, naked swords suspended from their waists, and traditional bow and arrows…” The spear looks more like a rudimentary tool used by a cave man, not the instruments carried by the proud people of the plains.

Commissioner Karen McCulloh during the city commission meeting on Tuesday said she was concerned with the breech cloth and leggings of the sculpture. She said that she didn’t know if the exposed backside of the sculpture was appropriate, but Say and Unrau both suggest the depiction is accurate. Say described the dress as a breech cloth tied about the waist with a simple, unadorned belt, and the men wore leggings that “conceal[ed] the leg, excepting a small portion of the upper part of the thigh…”

The sculpture does not appear to have shoes, but Say described the moccasins worn by the Kaw men as “made of dressed deer, elk or bison-skin,” and those were also “not ornamented.”

Finally, in the right hand, the sculpture is holding a “peace pipe” as reflected in the title of the sculpture, “Peace Offering on the Blue.” Lauren Ritterbush, associate professor of anthropology at Kansas State University and a scholar of American Indians in Kansas, said the Kaw people might object to calling it “a peace pipe.” She said Native Americans used pipes for thousands of years, and they were a symbolic shaking of hands after a deal had been struck between two groups, such as with land transfers.

Say also noted in his journal that when he and his party first arrived in Kaw lands, they were escorted to the chief’s house where they smoked a pipe before any further business was conducted.

Crystal Douglas, director of the Kanza Museum in Kaw City, Okla., attended the Flint Hills Discovery Center opening and facilitated the approval by the Kaw Nation for the use and depiction of them at the center. She is also working with the city to seek approval of the sculpture for the roundabout.

Douglas said she is not able to discuss the details or speak for the Kaw people because she is not a member of the tribe. She passed the photos of the proposed sculpture along to the Kaw Nation’s cultural council and said she hopes to have their response in about a week.

The city’s Arts and Humanities Board members have begun negotiations with the sculptor, which could include changes to the design of the sculpture. Once the contract is finalized, city commissioners will either approve or reject the final design.

Commissioner Usha Reddi pointed out during Tuesday’s meeting that this is not the only representation of American Indians in the area. Others could be found at Manhattan High School, whose mascot is the Indians; at City Park; and in Topeka, where a sculpture of a Kaw Indian shooting a bow and arrow tops the Capitol.

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