Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

The Rainbow Trail

Refer to caption
The Rainbow Trail by Woody Crumbo
Nowata, Oklahoma Post Office
Image provided by United States Postal Service. Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

“When the earth has had enough to drink, you must race across the heavens carrying the rainbow in your mane and tail, and spread it over the sky so that departed souls may cross upon it into the next world. . .  All souls will travel across the rainbow trail.”1

These were the instructions given to the horse by the Indians when it was selected as the favorite of all the animal kingdom. The legend of The Rainbow Horse, was a story frequently recounted by the Potawatomie artist, performer, and dancer Woody Crumbo throughout his prolific career, and served as an inspiration for many of his paintings, including The Rainbow Trail installed in the Nowata, Oklahoma post office in 1943.

Crumbo was born on January 31, 1912 in Lexington, Oklahoma. He attended a number of government schools, including the Riverside Indian School near Anadarko, Oklahoma, which is commonly associated with a group of artists which became known as the Kiowa Six. Crumbo’s talents were noticed by the Kiowa agency field matron Susie Peters, who encouraged him to pursue his artistic talents. He studied at Wichita University in Kansas for three years before transferring to the University of Oklahoma where he studied under the direction of Oscar B. Jacobson and Edith Mahier. By the time he turned twenty-one, Crumbo had been appointed as Director of Indian Art at Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, the only institute of higher learning exclusively for Indians. Crumbo was not only interested in his Potawatomi cultural heritage, but embraced the Southern Plains culture which he been exposed to during his youth. He was considered one of the most influential Native American painters in Oklahoma, his art serving as an inspiration for a generation of artists that followed him.2

The subject of his art frequently centered on the importance of Indigenous legends, mysticism, and ceremony; while concern for accurate representations of the natural world and tribal regalia became hallmarks of his paintings. These characteristics are found across the wide variety of artistic media Crumbo employed, which included easel paintings, printmaking, and murals such as The Rainbow Trail. Of his work as an artist Crumbo stated, “Half of my life passed in striving to complete the pictorial record of Indian history, religion, rituals, customs, way of life, and philosophies . . . a graphic record that a million words could not begin to tell.”3

Crumbo’s mural in Nowata was not the first commission he received through the United States Treasury Department’s art program; he was one of six Native American artists selected to paint murals for the newly constructed Department of Interior building in Washington, D.C. (1939-1940). His Nowata mural was a direct result of designs he submitted to an Oklahoma Indian competition for the commission to paint the mural for the post office in Okemah, Oklahoma. Even though that competition was won by Southern Cheyenne artist Dick West, Sr., three other Native American artists, including Woody Crumbo, received commissions at other post offices across the state based on their initial designs.4

Crumbo accepted the commission to paint the Nowata mural in July of 1941, and by the end of October, he had visited Nowata and met with the postmaster, J.T. Norton. Both the postmaster and administrators in Washington, D.C. concurred that, among the designs submitted, they liked the sketch depicting “three men on horses, one of them pointing at the rainbow” 5

 Completion of the work did not come within the time period of eight months allotted in his contract. Delays stemmed from multiple sources. In a letter to Edward Rowan, the artist expressed concern for finishing the painting before he was called “to the service of our country.” Although he did not serve in the military, completion of the mural was put on hold when he accepted a job at an aircraft company in Wichita in support of the war effort.6

Crumbo’s story of The Rainbow Horse demonstrates both his ability to tell a story, and his talents as an artist. The Plains Indians, sitting astride their horses, are placed within a rocky landscape dotted with trees and small, desert plants, including cactus and yucca, which give way to a gently rolling background landscape with a well-defined horizon line. Although Native American painting from this time period frequently featured figures over setting, Crumbo figures are located within a believable dimensional landscape. The overall color palette of the mural is muted earth tones of grays, browns, and greens, with highlighted areas to draw the viewer into the painting such as the repeated use of red in the breechcloths, feathers, and body paint adorning the male figures. Although the rainbow is relegated to the far, left corner of the composition, Crumbo’s wonderful use of pastel pink and yellow leads the viewer’s eye toward it, while the pointing Indian seated on the rearing horse draws attention as well as he points toward it. While Crumbo’s Indians are depicted with body paint associated with Oklahoma Indian tribes, each of the riders’ backs, shoulders, and legs are also adorned with irregularly shaped body paint in black with white spots. These unusual motifs may be an aesthetic device used to repeat the patterns found on Crumbo’s horses, as well as on some of the vegetation in the landscape.

Despite the delays, the mural was finally installed at the end of May 1943, nearly two years after Crumbo received the commission. In a letter to Section administrator, Edward Rowan, the artist apologized for the delay in completing the work, and wrote that, as soon as the war was over, he wanted to put his efforts toward being a professional artist. In the letter, he also praises the Section of Fine Arts, and the tremendous service it has provided for artists and citizens alike. “Your administration,” Crumbo wrote, “has without a doubt done more to encourage and develop the American Artists than any other period in the history of the United States. It has been and will continue to be a great asset to our cultural aspirations.”7

Crumbo was right in his assessment of the program, but perhaps even more interesting was he included himself among the “American artists” that participated in the program, not simply as a Native American artist. Certainly the painting was produced in a period of great patriotic fervor, and Crumbo’s pride as an American comes through in his writing, “I am happy to do all that is in my power to serve this our country. It is great and wonderful, and has given birth to a race of people that is proud to be a part of her.”8

Crumbo was proud of his completed mural, and the painting was well received by the townspeople of Nowata. In a letter from J.T. Norton to Edward Rowan, the postmaster had nothing but praise for it. “The mural,” Norton wrote, “was installed May 29, 1943, in a satisfactory manner and the same is meeting with the approval of the public, judging from the commendatory remarks.”9

Crumbo also wrote to Rowan noting “I have had several notes of approval on the work from Nowata residents – that pleases me to know that my painting has been accepted by the people for whom the painting was executed.”10

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) Woody Crumbo, “The Rainbow Horse” Gilcrease Museum Helmerich Research Center, Crumbo, Folder 2, 4027.1495, 3.

2) Smithsonian American Art Museum, Renwick Gallery: “Woodrow Crumbo” (, accessed May 25, 2016.

3) Gallery Guide, Bending, Weaving, Dancing: The Art of Wood Crumbo, Tulsa: Gilcrease Museum, 2013.

4) The other two artists were Acee Blue Eagle for the Coalgate, Oklahoma post office and Solomon
McCombs for the Marietta, Oklahoma post office.

5) Woody Crumbo to Edward Rowan, October 31, 1941.

6) Woody Crumbo to Edward Rowan, no date.

7) Ibid.

8) Ibid.

9) J.T. Norton to Edward Rowan, June 24, 1943.

10) Woody Crumbo to Edward Rowan, June 10, 1943.

Indians at the Post Office