Bigfoot (among other things)

Today was…how can I even explain today? Where we were wasn’t anything like the museums and archives we’ve been rushing around in for most of this trip. It wasn’t even like the galleries, and the people we talked to weren’t like the artists we met at Red Earth. Today was the most exhausting of all, but it was so incredible that it more than makes up for my current sleepy state.

We picked up Tom Poolaw at the Jacobson House this morning before starting on the 2 hour drive from Norman to Anadarko. On the way, Tom (who, if you recall, is a contemporary Kiowa artist whom we met with yesterday) told us all about all kinds of things. I wish I could remember everything he said – things about the buffalo, and about the land; about painting, of course, and what he does with his work; and about a million more things I can’t remember now. It was so different beyond the big network of highways around the center of the state where we’ve mostly been. Tom told us that the Kiowa call all the roads and wires and fences stretching across the earth the word in Kiowa that means spider. It’s all a giant web that has us trapped. I tried to imagine the flat green fields with the red red earth poking through, and the black cows, and dusty blue sky, all without limit and without boundary – but I couldn’t.

We went into the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko, where we were the only visitors. The town is small, and the museum very much so, but they had a whole room filled with original Stephen Mopope watercolors! We couldn’t believe it – 29 paintings we hadn’t expected at all! We couldn’t take pictures, but we soaked it all up.

Back on the road, we made the 20-minute drive even further southwest to Carnegie, where we visited the Kiowa Tribal Museum. There we met Mary Helen Deer, who showed us around the small exhibit. The best part there by far were the series of murals (10 total) made by Mirac Creepingbear, Sherman Chaddlestone, and Parker Boyiddle, all famous contemporary Kiowa artists. They tell the story of the Kiowa, from their creation myth to the modern day.

Here is N. Scott Momaday’s version of the Kiowa creation story from his book The Way to Rainy Mountain (Momaday is a famous Kiowa writer, for those who haven’t heard):

You know, everything had to begin, and this is how it was: the Kiowas came one by one into the world through a hollow log. There were many more than now, but not all of them got out. There was a woman whose body was swollen up with child, and she got stuck in the log. After that, no one could get through, and that is why the Kiowas are a small tribe in number. They looked all around and saw the world. It made them glad to see so many things. They called themselves Kwuda, “coming out.”

There are a ton more stories, too, involving the Kiowa hero/trickster, Seyndey, and the Half-Boy twins, and Grandmother Spider, and a lot of other great characters. My favorite story is about White Crow, who captured all the buffalo and put them in a hole to keep them for himself, while the rest of the Kiowas starved. Seyndey knew he was causing this trouble so he turned himself into a puppy and asked White Crow’s daughter where she had gotten the meat she was eating. Eventually he tricked her into showing him the hole, and he led the buffalo back out onto the plains. Then he punished White Crow by turning him black and making him a scavenger.

There were murals of both of these stories, plus murals of sun dances, ledger works, and more. And that wasn’t even my favorite part of the day.

We talked for a long time with Mrs. Deer, and with Tom some more, capturing most of the interview on video. Then we took them both out to lunch at a local diner (I had grilled cheese; I’m trying to cut back on my giant restaurant meals) and heard even more. Then we drove back to Anadarko to visit the post office.

On the way there Tom told us about all the Bigfoot sightings there have been around Anadarko. There aren’t too many trees out there, besides near the rivers (Washita, Canadian, and others), but there are canyons around, and he said they turn up as it gets dark, or when it’s pitch black. At first I didn’t know what to make of his stories. But he posited that they’re spirits – yes, they’re frightening, but that means they’re there to protect something, he said. They also smell really strong, but you know they’re not skunks or something because the smell doesn’t stick. The Bigfoot arrives and disappears suddenly, quietly, inexplicably. They’re super strong, and big. Tom said he thinks they could very well be real – there have been Kiowa words and stories for creatures like that forever. He thinks maybe they know the ways out of this world, the holes that lead somewhere else, like the ones in the creation and White Crow stories. It is true that there are a lot of holes in Kiowa mythology.

But we’ll come back to Bigfoot in a bit. When we got to the Anadarko Post Office we met up with Vanessa Paukeigope Jennings , the granddaughter of Stephen Mopope, who walked us around explaining everything she knew about the 16 murals he had painted there during the Depression as a WPA project. She said he included treasured details about the correct Kiowa clothing, teepee paintings, camp setups – everything Indians at that time weren’t supposed to be allowed to keep. Hearing that reinforced my theory that the Kiowa Five were assimilating without really assimilating, if that makes sense. They were painting what the white men wanted to buy, and in doing so they were making a profit, and surviving, and adapting. But they were also including the symbolism of the Kiowa, of their own specific war and dance societies, and details of the lives they were losing. They preserved what they couldn’t continue to practice in a way that was accepted and encouraged by the subjugating party. And now, nearly a century later, Kiowas are still able to decipher what he painted, and value it all the more for the way it teaches them some of what they’ve lost.

So that was pretty amazing, seeing those murals. And the day wasn’t even done. Tom directed us next to his aunt, Linda Poolaw’s, office down the road. She’s a Grand Chief of the Delaware Indian Council, which is a very big deal (of course, I didn’t know that going in). The minute we came in she told us “sit down!” and handed us all water bottles. She talked and talked about the Delawares (which, as you might imagine, were originally an Eastern tribe) and their migrations, and told us more about Bigfoot too (that was my favorite part).

She told us stories about Bigfoot running alongside cars, approaching sweat lodges, sneaking up to play the drums alongside men out in the woods at night, throwing down rocks at people making too much noise at the bottom of a canyon, coming up to the edge of her women’s ceremonial circle every month. She seemed completely convinced they’re real, but she thinks they come from the mountains out in California, and are being driven east by people building their fancy houses up there.

Anyway, she had a lot more to say, but she and Professor M-L got into a discussion about archaeological discoveries that I didn’t quite understand. That was okay – her office was filled with photographs taken by her father, Horace Poolaw, around the same time as the Kiowa Five. That was just as exciting.

Before we left, Mrs. Poolaw gave us each an apple, a pear, and an orange, as well as small pouches of blessed tobacco. She was very, very kind to us, a forceful speaker and a conscientious hostess. I can see why Professor M-L says she’s known as a “formidable woman” even on the east coast.

We didn’t return to Norman until nearly 7:00, and we were all beat by then. But Jade said it’s bad to take naps so late in the day, so we rallied and got something to eat at the Red Robin near our hotel, and then got to work on the guide we’re writing for the docents of our exhibit. It’s nearly done as of 11:46 tonight (in fact, the only part we’re waiting on is the abstract of my paper on the Kiowa Five themselves – and yet here I am writing this post instead of that). But there’s still so much more to do – object labels, didactic texts, catalogue materials, and on and on. I’m trying hard not to be daunted.

Tomorrow we’ll be back in the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum archives.


Us students, along with Tom Poolaw and Terry Taylor (who showed us around) in front of the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko.

Us and Tom again, this time with Mary Helen Deer in front of the Kiowa Tribal Museum in Carnegie.

Us along with Vanessa Jennings, her husband Carl, and their grandson beneath some of Mopope’s murals in the Anadarko Post Office.

About Rachel Isadore Steinberg

I'm Rachel. I'm a writer, a reader, a tea drinker, a tree climber, a dog lover, a journaler, a wonderer, a wanderer, an advocate, a believer, and a baker.
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