Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Chickasaw Family Making Pah Sho Fah (Pashofa)

Refer to caption
Chickasaw Family Making Pah Sho Fah (Pashofa) by Solomon McCombs, Creek Nation
Marietta, Oklahoma Post Office
Image by Krystal Adams. Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Solomon McCombs, Creek, was the great grandchild of Creek people who walked the Trail of Tears. The Trail of Tears refers to the forced exodus of tribal people from the southeast to Indian Territory. It was a treacherous journey for the more than 14,500 Creeks forced to march west.  Hundreds died along the way and over 3,000 died upon arrival as a result of lack of adequate supplies and exposure to diseases and the elements. Born in Eufala, OK, McCombs was educated at the local schools, eventually attending Bacone College, where his grandfather was one of the founding members and his cousin, also a mural artist, Acee Blue Eagle was the founder of the Art Department at Bacone.  Acee Blue Eagle, who had received his training at the University of Oklahoma under Oscar B. Jacobson, was one of McCombs’ instructors.  Jacobson was instrumental in the development of “Flatstyle” painting which was considered the “refinement” of “traditional Indian painting.”  His most notable students were the Kiowa Five artists, Stephen Mopope, Jack Hokeah, Monroe Tsatoke , Spencer Asah, and James Auchiah . There was a sixth female member, Lois Smoky, who left the group.

Jacobson’s painting program worked cooperatively with Dorothy Dunn’s Studio art program at the Santa Fe Indian School.  McCombs’ training under Acee Blue Eagle can be viewed as an example of the spread of the so called “Traditional Indian Painting style.”  This style is marked by bright colored images with heavy outlines, not in perspective, and portraying aspects of Native culture.

McCombs painted throughout his life, once serving as a Visual Aids Officer for the U.S. State Department.  His work has been exhibited in a number of United States Embassies, including Spain and Brazil. McCombs traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and North Africa displaying his work. He won numerous awards for his art, notably the Waite Phillips Trophy in 1965 for his contribution to Indian Art.

One of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes, the Chickasaw Nation originally inhabited the northern corners of Mississippi and Alabama, much of western Tennessee and a small portion of western Kentucky.  Importantly, the western boundary of their lands was the Mississippi River. The American government in 1818 pressured the Chickasaw nation into signing the Treaty of Old Town, ceding their lands in Tennessee and Kentucky as settlers’ pressured for access to the Mississippi River and nearby lands seeking their abundant supply of timber useable in powering steamboats.  Around the same time Mississippi became a state, the government insisted the Chickasaw had no further right to their land claims near present day Tupelo.  A proposition to the Chickasaw in 1826, requesting that they cede their land for land west of the Mississippi was refused.  Their removal was inevitable with the election of President Andrew Jackson in 1828 and the resultant Indian Removal Act of 1830. Chickasaw leaders negotiated the Treaty of Franklin in 1830 stating they would cede their land east of the Mississippi for the same amount of land west of the Mississippi but a suitable exchange was never achieved.  The 1832 Treaty of Pontotoc would lead to their forced removal.  Chickasaw lands were sold off by the government and in 1837 the Chickasaw would be allowed to lease the western part of Choctaw lands for $530,000 and have a representative on the Choctaw Council. The Chickasaw would eventually settle and separate themselves from the Choctaw Nation, formally signing a separation treaty in Washington in 1856 and ratifying their own constitution in Tishomingo, OK during August 1856. 

The influx of white settlers to the region and the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 would lead to the dissolution of the Chickasaw tribal government.  The Dawes Commission of 1895 setup its office in Muskogee, where it began allotment negotiations with the Five Civilized Tribes. The purpose of allotment was to open western lands discontinuing tribal ownership and assign land plots to individual tribal members.   Specifically with the Choctaw and Chickasaw, the Atoka Agreement of 1897 outlined the allotment negotiations between the Dawes Commission and the two tribes.  Initially not accepted by Chickasaw voters, it was resubmitted for approval as a provision of the Curtis Act of 1898 and passed. It was responsible for dissolving tribal governments, courts and the enforcement of tribal law.  

The area would now be under federal jurisdiction, in that land could be federally surveyed and sold.  Towns could now be incorporated, such as Marietta was on June 2, 1898.  Chickasaw tribal sovereignty was abolished March 4, 1906 and Oklahoma was added to the Union in November 1907. The office of the governor remained, each official being appointed by the President of the United States with the purpose of closing out any remaining tribal business. This allowed for the successful assimilation of the Chickasaw Nation into the United States.  However, the Chickasaw people continued to fight to retain their identity and through new policies under the Nixon administration, they were permitted to elect their own officials.  This would eventually lead to the ratification and recognition of their new constitution in 1983.

Legend tells that the town of Marietta was actually named after the first postmaster’s wife, Marie Etta.  The town was founded in 1887 as a result of the new railroad reaching from Texas to Purcell, Oklahoma and the federal post office opened on December 20, 1887. Jerry Washington and his brother, William Washington were two of the largest cattle ranchers in the region. Jerry lived about a mile north of present day Marietta and became its first postmaster. 

At this time, Oklahoma was not considered an established territory. Post offices in the region preceding the land rush in 1889 were few and far between and all considered part of Indian Territory .  Marietta is the county seat of Love County, which was originally Pickens County, Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory.  The name was changed at the time Oklahoma became a state to honor Chickasaw native, Overton Love. He served as county judge and a member of both houses of the Chickasaw National Council.  Marietta established itself as a prosperous agricultural town, its population peaking in the 1920s. Public Works projects prompted by policies hoping to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression awarded Marietta a new post office, built in 1939, and a mural for its decoration.

One of the last murals to be commissioned by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, Chickasaw Family Making Pashofa was completed during the Spring of 1942. The mural had to be painted directly on the wall due to a shortage of canvas. 

Considered the “national dish” of the Chickasaw people, the thick and soupy mixture of meat and corn can be served as a drink or can be eaten.  The mural depicts four women and two men participating in the preparation and cooking with two children as onlookers.  The Chickasaw were a matrilineal society, female members having leadership roles and responsible for passing down traditional life ways. Under traditional gender roles of the Chickasaw, men would have been expected to supply the meat.  Women were responsible for cultivating, preparation and the cooking of the corn, maintaining fires and gathering firewood.  They made all the cooking utensils, such as the clay pots and the three types of baskets, made from split cane, which are used for sifting and cleaning ground corn.  

European encroachment influenced changes in the making of pashofa. Originally venison or bison was used, but with the introduction of pigs, pork became the meat of choice specifically the meaty back bone.  Metal pots acquired through trade eventually replaced the handmade clay pots, which also shortened cooking time.

Pashofa is not simply food; it is a symbol of Chickasaw identity.  The dish has been made throughout the history of the Chickasaw people.  Pashofa is served at all types of social gatherings, from weddings to funeral receptions and is also believed to have healing properties.  Ritual ceremonies often call for this dish, such as stomp dances at social gatherings.  Pashofa ceremonies were at first encouraged by missionaries, but were eventually deemed sacrilegious and prohibited. Government policies were even implemented restricting ceremonies in attempt to stifle Native cultural practices with the goal of forcing assimilation.

The artist’s original sketch for the post office mural depicted Native people hunting buffalo.  Chickasaw Family Making Pashofa was a welcomed change, providing a snapshot of Chickasaw culture in the post office located in the Chickasaw Nation.

By Krystal Adams


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Indians at the Post Office