Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Osage Treaties

Refer to caption
Osage Treaties by Olive Rush
Pawhuska, Oklahoma Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Born in 1873 in Fairmount, Indiana to a Quaker family, Olive Rush showed an interest in art from an early age, and with her parents’ support, at age sixteen, she left home to attend Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. Her superior talents as an artist were quickly recognized, and by 1891 she moved on from Earlham to study art in various programs on the east coast including the prestigious Art Students League in New York City. She spent time in England and France as she honed artistic skills, and she studied illustration with Howard Pyle in Wilmington, Delaware from 1905 to 1911. In 1914 she accompanied her father on a trip to the Southwest during which time she continued to sketch and paint. Near the end of their time in New Mexico, Olive arranged a one-woman show of her paintings at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. The trip would have a lasting impression on the artist who would make Santa Fe her home in 1920. She became part of the artistic and intellectual circle that lived and worked in Santa Fe where they found inspiration in the landscape and the culture while also promoting Native American art and artists.

In addition to her skills as a painter and illustrator, Rush was also an accomplished muralist having painted murals for notable spaces such as the famed La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe in May of 1929. In 1932 she was asked to oversee a group of American Indian artists to paint a mural for the dining hall of the Santa Fe Indian School. The collaborative effort of thirteen artists from a wide variety of tribal backgrounds completed the mural in six weeks, and set a precedent for American Indian painted murals which continued into the New Deal era.1

Given her experience as a muralist it is not surprising that Rush would enter the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture artists’ competitions, and in July of 1937 she was invited to paint a mural for the post office at Pawhuska, Oklahoma based on her sketches submitted for a previous Section competition.2 Rush was encouraged by Section Director, Edward Rowan to travel to Pawhuska in order to determine an appropriate subject matter for her painting. Complying with the director’s wishes, she visited this small Oklahoma town, and after her visit she wrote Rowan that “Pawhuska is the heart and center of the Osage tribe. . . They would hear nothing of farm subjects. They wanted Indians!”3 With a subject matter determined, Rush quickly set to work on the preliminary sketch which was enthusiastically received by Rowan on December 15, 1937. When the finished painting was installed in October of 1938, it was warmly embraced by the citizens of Pawhuska, as the local postmaster noted in a letter to Edward Rowan, “We are all very proud of the mural . . . Everyone seems to like it very much.”4 Praise for Rush’s mural continued well past its initial installation. On March 31, 1940, in an article for the Daily Oklahoman Nan Sheets wrote, “Miss Rush has taken a difficult historical theme and made it vibrant with life. She has painted it in such a manner that it adds to the dignity of the room it decorates.”5

“Osage Treaties” is a mural of two primary scenes within one canvas. Set in the outdoors, the figures are pushed to the front of the picture plane. Rush’s color palette is both vibrant and naturalistic, featuring reddish browns, pale yellows, and shades of blue and green. On the left side of the painting, Rush depicts an interaction between an unidentified Osage tribal leader who is clasping hands with two white men signaling the solidification of an agreement between the parties. The men are clearly differentiated by their style of dress with the Osage man wearing regalia associated with the tribe. The word treaty in the painting’s title might typically call to mind other images of treaties where white men might be depicted in military dress and the negotiations taking place within a structure such as a tent, a visual indicator of an official treaty signing, but that is not the case in Rush’s scene. Surrounded by horses and standing rather informally in the landscape, the treaty depiction lacks a certain “authenticity” that the viewer may expect from a painting with such a title.

In the central, middle ground of the mural Rush has painted figures of a woman and small child sitting under an Osage, summer arbor. This pictorial device separates the two main narratives of the painting while the gently curving top of the structure is repeated in the green, rolling hills of the background which is indicative of the natural landscape of north, central Oklahoma where Pawhuska is located.

The right side of the canvas is particularly interesting, although both sides of the canvas are set within an historical past, the Osage men that occupy this side of the painting are depicted even further back in time. Here eight Osage men sit as in council with one another. Most of the figures are draped only in hide robes with the exception of the figure wrapped in a wool blanket that sits with his back toward to viewer. The most captivating of the figures is the “noble Indian” that dominates the center of the canvas, an artistic trope that had existed in paintings of Native Americans for centuries before Rush’s undertaking of this mural. His elbow resting on his knee and right hand lifted toward his face presents a figure in contemplation as he looks off into the distance seemingly unaware of the viewer’s gaze. The other Osage Indians sitting slightly behind the central figure are similarly dressed and also appear to be in deep thought. Although Rush has placed the scenes within a believable setting, the stone buttes that resemble a landscape of the Southwest depicted in the upper right corner are an interesting inclusion. Like the figures on the right that seem to predate the more civilized interaction between the men on the left, these monolithic rocks can also be read as a uncivilized landscape.

As Nan Sheets had indicated in her article the painting is a representation of an historical theme, although as with many paintings that depict Native Americans the scene is not a documented historical event, but one created in the mind of the artist, and a painting that met the approval of both white and Indian citizens of Pawhuska, as indicated by Edward Rowan in a letter to the Pawhuska postmaster, “we [the Section] were very interested to learn that the Indians, especially, liked it very much.”6 Olive Rush was an accomplished and skilled artist, who had embraced the promotion of Indian arts in the opening decades of the twentieth century, she painted a mural of an imagined Native American past, that was appreciated by all citizens in Pawhuska both Indian and non-Indian alike.

By Denise Neil-Binion (Delaware/Cherokee Nation)


1) Biographical information from Olive Rush: An Independent Spirit (, accessed October 15, 2015 and Nicolas Calcagno, New Deal Era Murals in Oklahoma, Miami, OK: Pioneer Press, 1976.

2) Edward Rowan to Olive Rush, July 22, 1937

3) Olive Rush to Edward Rowan, December 7, 1937

4) R.J. Morrow to Edward Rowan, November 2, 1938

5) Nan Sheets, “Mural in Pawhuska Post Office Painted by New Mexico Artist,” Daily Oklahoman, March 31, 1940. Rowan to Morrow, April 2, 1940.

6) Edward Rowan to R.J. Morrow, April 12, 1940.

Indians at the Post Office