In 1939 Edith Mahier was awarded the commission to paint a mural for the post office in Watonga, Oklahoma. 1 In addition to her skills as an artist, her association with Oklahoma and interest in Native American history, culture, and art most likely impacted the decision to install her mural in the town that was once part of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Reservation. Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1892, Mahier studied at Newcomb College of Art (Tulane University), graduating in 1916, and, in 1917, she accepted a position teaching art at the University of Oklahoma, where she worked under the direction of Oscar B. Jacobson. Around 1926, Kiowa agency field matron, Susie Peters, shared drawings by a group of Kiowa artists with Mahier, and the art instructor encouraged Jacobson to allow the group of five men and one woman, who became known as the Kiowa Six, to enroll in special art classes at OU. In addition to her art instruction of the Kiowa artists, which included Stephen Mopope, Mahier also taught Pawnee/Creek artist Acee Blue Eagle, and Southern Cheyenne painter Dick West, Sr.
As her interest in Native American culture and art grew, Mahier was inspired to collaborate with her sister, Frances Brandon, to design a Native American fashion line for Nieman-Marcus in Dallas, Texas. Her new found interest in Native inspired fashion gained popularity throughout the 1940s, and led to her transfer in the 1950’s from the university’s art department to the School of Home Economics, where she remained until her retirement.2
Although Mahier was not known for her mural paintings, she went to great lengths to ensure the mural would be both an accurate representation, and pleasing to the people of Watonga. The Section of Painting and Sculpture encouraged all artists to visit the communities where their art would be installed, and, although teaching commitments delayed her visit to Watonga, she finally made the trip in the spring of 1940. After the visit, she reported she had gathered enough ideas to paint several murals, but her interest in Native American culture and history inspired her to select the Cheyenne Chief, Henry Roman Nose and the Oklahoma canyon named after him as the subject of her mural. A stickler for detail, Mahier used multiple resources in preparation to paint her mural, including meeting with the people of Watonga and Cheyenne Indians, including the wife of Chief Roman Nose. The artist also consulted with anthropologists at the University of Oklahoma who provided valuable documentation on Cheyenne clothing and regalia.3
Chief Roman Nose stands at the center of Mahier’s composition, gazing into the distance rather than engaging with the viewer. This contemplative pose, often associated with the American Indian as a “Noble Savage,” was a concept developed during the Enlightenment of the 18th century that positioned the Indian within nature, and prized European civilization over Native American culture. By the 19th century, European and American artists had established an iconographic language to represent the Indigenous people in North America as the idealized and romanticized “Noble Savage,” which continued into the 21st century.
Wearing fringed, hide leggings, red breechcloth, and moccasins beaded in a style typical of the Cheyenne, the chief holds a rifle in his right hand. His horse, an important symbol of Plains tribal culture, is also adorned with a beaded headstall. Roman Nose’s prominence in the scene and regalia are indications of his tribal status. In the left foreground of the composition, the artist painted three Plains Indian men, two in full-feather headdresses, riding their horses into the canyon. Their presence not only adds visual interest, but the strong diagonal line they form is a compositional device to draw the viewer’s eye to the center of the painting, and the primary subject. On the right side of the canvas, Mahier depicted the chief’s wife and children standing near a stream that emerges from a cave in Roman Nose Canyon. The importance of water was symbolic for both the Cheyenne and the white settlers who participated in the land run of 1892, an event that brought great change to the region and upheaval to the lives of the Cheyenne.
On April 12, 1892 President Benjamin Harrison had issued a proclamation opening 3.5 million acres of the former Cheyenne and Arapaho Reservation to be made available to white settlers. Seven days later, twenty-five thousand people flocked to western Oklahoma for “free land” to be dispersed in 160-acre plots. 4 Directly behind the chief’s stately figure, Mahier painted an iconographic scene depicting these white settlers bringing “civilization” to the Southern Plains. She included the covered wagon which transported personal possessions in the expansion of the West; the group to the right of the wagon which included a mother and her children, as a sign the lands would be populated by white families; and the felled tree, with the ax still embedded in the trunk, to signify the land would be cleared by these newcomers and be “properly” utilized for farming and ranching. As another means of separating the life of the Indians from the settlers, Mahier intentionally divided the landscape; her Indian figures are enveloped by a naturalistic setting of the canyon while her pioneers stand in the open land of rolling, green hills.
In Mahier’s own recounting of the scene, she said:
“The mural painting submitted for the post office at Watonga, Okla, presents the Indians living in Roman Nose Canyon at the coming of the settlers. . . . The settlers in search of water have stopped their covered wagon near the stream and while they scan the horizon envisaging the gravel pits, the flourishing of wheat fields and their future city with its churches, schools, homes, and businesses, the young Indian stands holding his rifle, his defiance gone but in its place be-wilderment for he is old enough to realize that he may never achieve those honors which his father and grandfather held dear, that he must find a place under a new system.”5
Mahier’s description of the work is a clear indication of her thoughts on the disruption brought about by the coming of the white settlers to the former reservation lands. Despite her first-hand experience of working with Native American artists, her words show the common misconception the Indian and his culture were a vanishing race, and survival would be achieved through assimilation.
When the painting was completed, the Watonga postmaster noted in a letter to the Federal Works Agency that the mural was satisfactorily installed, and “I believe the public is well pleased.”6 Despite this endorsement, and Mahier’s efforts to accurately portray the Cheyenne chief and the canyon named for him, not everyone was pleased with the painting. Protest of the mural lead to a controversy that garnered national media attention, and to Mahier’s defense of her work. Just weeks after the installation, Chief Red Bird, Roman Nose’s successor, led a small group of Native American in protest of the painting, vowing to remain steadfast in their vigil until “substantial alterations were made to the mural.” Specific criticisms were Roman Nose’s breechcloth was too short and he resembled a Navajo not a Cheyenne, the child standing near his mother looked like “a stumpy pig bloated on corn meal”, and the horses’ necks looked like swans. Perhaps most importantly, there were questions as to why the commission was not given to one of the many talented Indian painters living in Oklahoma.7
When made aware of these criticisms, Mahier quickly sought to make amends, offering to make changes to the mural, but she also defended her work, noting she had used the Southern Cheyenne artist Dick West, as a model when painting Roman Nose, and she conducted extensive research with both anthropologists and Cheyenne people in preparation and execution of her painting. In support of Mahier, Section Assistant Chief, Edward Rowan, addressed the controversy, defending the artist’s painting, and responded to an article published in the Washington Daily News on June 17, 1941, that disparaged the painting. Rowan wrote, “Miss Mahier was given this commission based on competent sketches submitted in a previous anonymous, regional competition. An article appearing in the Watonga Republican under date of May 29 further reveals the thorough research Miss Mahier undertook in order to authenticate her work. I was particularly interested in the fact that she conferred with the aged widow of Roman Nose.”8
Although the efforts to defend the painting were admirable, there was possibly something more manipulative at play. On June 17, 1941, Mahier wrote a letter to Rowan, and noted that she had received a note which advised her not to worry about the picketing of her painting, that, in fact, the protests were part of a plan by city leaders to get media attention for developing Roman Nose Park as a tourist destination.9 The controversy was short-lived, and by June 23, 1941, the Watonga Post Master wrote to Rowan, “This mural is well liked by the majority of the citizens of this community, both whites and Indians. In my opinion, the picketing was only intended as a publicity stunt by reporters of the local paper,”10 and with that, the controversy seemed to fade. The mural can still be viewed today at the Watonga post office, 75 years after it was installed.
By Denise Neil-Binion (Delaware/Cherokee Nation)
PhD Candidate, Native American Art History, University of Oklahoma
2016 Smithsonian Fellow and awarded an NPM Scholarship
1) Letter Edward Rowan to Edith Mahier, April 18, 1939.
2) The Living New Deal: Post Office Mural – Watonga OK (livingnewdeal.org/projects/post-office-mural-watonga-ok), accessed May 21, 2016.
3) Letter Edith Mahier to Edward Rowan, June 1, 1940 and July 25, 1940. And “Post Office Houses Our
First Mural,” Watonga Republic, May 29, 1941.
4) “Cheyenne-Arapaho Opening (okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=CH031),” accessed May 21, 2016.
5) “Post Office Houses Our First Mural”
6) Letter C. Knappenberger to Federal Works Agency, June 4, 1941.
7) Karal Ann Marling, Wall to Wall America: A Cultural History of Post Office Murals in the Great Depression, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 279.
8) Letter Edward Rowan to General Johnson, June 19, 1941.
9) Letter Edith Mahier to Edward Rowan, June 17, 1941.
10) Letter C. Knappenberger to Edward Rowan, June 23. 1941.