Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Choctaw Ball-Play 1840

Refer to caption
Choctaw Ball-Play 1840 (1840) by Manuel Bromberg
Tahlequah, Oklahoma Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Manuel Bromberg, born in Centreville, Iowa, was a first generation American artist receiving his formal art education at the Cleveland School of Art and Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Bromberg assisted one of his mentors, Boardman Robinson, on a mural project for the Department of Justice in 1937, which aided in getting his own WPA mural commissions. After the completion of the WPA mural projects, artists like Bromberg found themselves employed by the War Department as battlefield artists and photojournalists during World War II on the front lines. Bromberg produced drawing, paintings, and took photographs during the war reflecting the battle scenes and emotions of soldier’s war experiences when he accompanied U.S. armed forces during the Normandy Invasion. After the war Bromberg was awarded the Guggheim Fellowship in Creative Arts and began teaching art at North Carolina State University’s School of Design.

The mural Choctaw Ball-Play 1840 examines the complexities facing tribes during the removal process from their homelands in the Southeast United States and establishing their new homes in “Indian Territory” named for the tribes who were centralized through ceding of Indian lands east of the Mississippi River. Bromberg through his use of symbolic colors and events did extensive research to capture not only the environment, but the sentiment of the subjects he painted, capturing a very important time in the history of tribal groups, but the foundation and image of Indian Territory leading to Oklahoma Statehood. The game of stickball has been historically known as “The Little Brother of War” reflecting its use among tribes to settle disputes instead of waging a full-fledged war, in most instances not solving anything and costing each side considerable human loss. Townships of the Southeastern tribes were separate entities within tribal social structures, stickball served as a traditional way of reinforcing tribal and clan affiliations. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was approved by Congress, “to provide for an exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi.” The removal in the Southeast involved the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole, and Creek historically known as the “Five Civilized Tribes” for being the first tribes to adapt to western European ways of dress, diplomacy, and slave trading. Although the Five Civilized Tribes are credited in history books as being the key targets of the Removal process, it also affected tribes throughout the Ohio Valley, Appalachian Mountain Range, Great Lakes and the central Great Plains including tribes like the Seneca, Cayuga, Peoria, Ponca, Pawnee, and Potawatomi who also were moved to Indian Territory. The Choctaws from Mississippi were the first tribe to voluntarily move to Indian Territory during the early 1830s with the Cherokee and other Southeast tribes moving intermittently until 1839. Upon moving into tribal boundaries were still undetermined although they had been proposed through recognizable land marks, like rivers and hills, they were constantly changing due to more tribes being relocated through their own treaties and the demand for fertile farmlands and hunting grounds.

By 1840 the Indian Territory had been sparsely populated by Native groups but was not a formal or organized territory, but land within the United States of America reserved for the forced re-settlement of Native Americans. The general borders of Indian Territory and tribal boundaries were originally established by the Indian Intercourse Act of 1834. The Choctaw, one of the first tribes to voluntarily relocate, were given a large portion of land in Eastern Oklahoma, but as other tribes moved in their land base diminished through land grants and the purchasing of land.

The ball players are wearing different colored outfits, each of which representing an individual tribe, most likely removed from the Appalachian Mountain Range area. The origins of stickball are closely associated with lacrosse, both of which were conducted in some variation with most of the tribes along the Appalachian Trail stretching from Maine to Georgia crossing a number of culture areas and being a social phenomenon they all practiced. When tribes were relocated to Indian Territory depending on which part of the country they were from also determined where their new homelands were located within Indian Territory. For example, the Choctaw were from the Southeast and were given lands in the southeastern part of the territory, tribes from the upper Ohio Valley and Appalachian range in the northeast part of the United States were located in the far northeast corner. 

The green colored loin coverings of the stickball players represent the tribes from the northeast part of Indian Territory like the Seneca and Peoria. Blue and red are representative of the Choctaw to the south, and the Cherokee wearing red were located in the central part of the territory. The colors of the Cherokee and Choctaw clothing in the mural signify their social structures, like other southeastern tribes, known individually as a “moiety,” which is defined as “one of two equal tribal subdivisions.” For instance, within Cherokee diplomacy red symbolizes war and white is representative of peace establishing a balance within the tribe, complimenting each other instead of one being dominant over the other. In the Choctaw culture the colors signify the youth and the elders.

The main theme within in the mural is struggle, which all the Indigenous groups have endured through colonization, but struggle within the mural might also be seen as symbolizing their ability to overcome obstacles through adaptation of new ideas and outside influences. The re-interpretation of culture and social structures, one of their greatest strengths, is a determining factor in why they still exist. The current day struggles for tribal groups relocated to Indian Territory began in their ancestral homelands as the frontier expanded and they were pushed further west. The most distinguishing event of the Removal process was the Trail of Tears in which tribal groups, not only the Cherokee, were forced to march to land allotted to them in Indian Territory. Their experiences along their removal routes included devastating losses through sickness and death, with many people having to leave the sick and feeble to die thus leaving families and social structures broken. After the arrival of tribal groups in Indian Territory they not only struggled to establish communities, but to re-establish their individual cultures. Even though there were cultural differences their experiences through removal were similar.

In a current day context it is still representative of the struggles Indian people face in their communities maintaining their tribal identity and coexisting on lands governed by Federal, State, and tribal legislation, which overlap, complement, and contradict each other causing even more hurdles for tribes to overcome. 

By Reuben Noah, Choctaw/Kickapoo/Iowa Nations


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Indians at the Post Office