Pawnee/Muskogee (Creek) artist, performer, and teacher Acee Blue Eagle was born near Anadarko, Oklahoma on August 17, 1909. Although his given name was Alex McIntosh, his professional name was taken from Acee, a childhood nickname, and Blue Eagle from a traditional family surname. He attended Haskell Indian Industrial Training Institute in Kansas, Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Oklahoma, and, after graduation, attended Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He enrolled in the University of Oklahoma where he studied art under the direction of Oscar B. Jacobson and Edith Mahier, graduating in 1932 with a bachelor of fine arts degree.
Traveling abroad in 1935, he lectured on Indian art at Oxford University in England and afterward toured Europe. Returning home, he accepted a teaching appointment at his alma mater Bacone, where he was instrumental in the establishment of the school’s art department, and served as its director until 1938. That same year, he received national recognition when his work was shown at the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York City. Blue Eagle exhibited widely and was a recipient of numerous awards. He also fulfilled many public commissions, painting murals for several Oklahoma colleges, libraries, and federal buildings; including work completed for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and the Section of Painting and Sculpture.1
In August 1938, Blue Eagle was commissioned to paint the mural for the post office in Seminole, Oklahoma based on designs he had submitted as part of the Interior Department Competition. Although he had been painting murals for the federal government PWAP in Oklahoma, his work in Seminole was the first of two post office murals completed for the Section (the other mural was installed in Coalgate, Oklahoma in 1942). Section Assistant Chief, Edward Rowan suggested Blue Eagle visit Seminole before he determined a subject matter, reminding him “It is suggested that you use a subject matter which embodies some idea appropriate to the building or to the particular locals of Seminole.”2
Blue Eagle made the trip to Seminole and decided to paint Seminole Indian Village Scene, an appropriate choice for a town located within the boundaries of the Seminole Nation and named for the Seminole Indians. However, he chose to paint the Seminole as they lived in Florida rather than Oklahoma. This decision raised some concern for Section administrators, as Rowan noted in a letter to Blue Eagle, “We assume that your selection of subject matter was inspired by particular Indians and the type of architecture to be found in Seminole. Are we correct in this assumption?”3
In fact, their assumptions were not correct. Blue Eagle’s depiction of the Seminole Indians, with the exception of their adapted traditional patchwork clothing, is set in the tropical landscape of Florida, connecting the Oklahoma Seminole Nation with its historic roots. Ultimately, the Section administrators did not further question Blue Eagle’s decision to depict the Seminole as they lived in Florida.
Set against a peach backdrop with silhouettes of sea gulls flying overhead, Blue Eagle’s Florida landscape includes swaying palm trees, palmettos, and beach grass in the background. His Seminole Indians are dressed in the patchwork skirts and long shirts that were the fashion after the sewing machine was introduced to Seminole women. The initial impact of the sewing machine was limited as the designs became more complex over time. They began as blocks or bars of alternating colors, sometimes with a saw tooth pattern.4 By 1920, however, both men’s and women’s clothing had become the patchwork designs for which the Seminoles are known for today.
In the mural, the female figures wear capes over their blouses and multiple necklaces of glass beads, most visible in the female figure standing at the wooden mortar and pestle, cracking the hard corn in preparation of making the traditional dish of sofkey.5
The central female figure is accompanied by a second female and a young girl. They stand underneath the thatched roofed chickee, a structure commonly used by the Seminole when they were on the run from U.S. troops and needed fast, disposable shelter.6 Just outside of the chickee, two large cast iron pots sit atop wood fires where the corn for the sofkey would be cooked.
Interestingly, Blue Eagle elected to paint the roof of a second chickee in a straw-yellow color rather than the green of the other, indicating an older structure with dried leaves. Beneath the structure, is a small still life with a coffeepot and two calico bags sitting on a wooden table.
Outside the confines of the chickee, a Seminole man draws his bow, arrow pointing toward the sky, while two young boys sit on the ground. The boy on the right is being approached by three turtles, a rather whimsical addition to the scene.
This scene genre was favored by Blue Eagle and other artists who had studied at Bacone College. If fact, the Bacone artists developed a specific style of painting that, although sharing some aesthetic qualities with the Kiowa artists in Oklahoma and the Puebloan artists in New Mexico, was unique among Indigenous painters. The “Bacone style,” placed a greater emphasis on the modeling of figures, the inclusion of landscape, and incorporation of western aesthetics such as perspective, and influenced generations of Indian artists both inside and outside of Oklahoma.
While it may seem odd Blue Eagle elected to paint his Seminoles in Florida, it is important and appropriate he linked the Seminoles, who had been forcefully removed to Oklahoma, with their cultural past, and to those who remained to live in Florida after their relocation. Although depicting the everyday life of the Florida Seminole Indians may seem benign, the inclusion of the making of traditional food is meaningful, in that, the cultural lifeways of the Seminole continued despite many cultural upheavals.
When Seminole postmaster Charles W. Johnston notified the Section the mural had been satisfactorily installed, he wrote, “from conversation with the citizens of this city it (the mural) seems to meet with their approval.” He also noted Blue Eagle, who had honed his skills in public speaking, had met with the “Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, and several other clubs in the city giving talks on the mural and Indian art which seems to have been appreciated by all.”7
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) David C. Hunt, “Acee Blue Eagle” (okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=BL013), accessed May 31, 2016.
2) Edward Rowan to Acee Blue Eagle, August 20, 1938.
3) Edward Rowan to Acee Blue Eagle, October 6, 1938.
4) David M. Blackbird and Patsy West, “Seminole Clothing” (semtribe.com/Culture/SeminoleClothing.aspx), accessed May 31, 2016.
5) Matt Despain, “The Legacy of Pashofa: Ceremony, Society, Women, and Chickasaw Life” (se.edu/nas/files/2013/03/5thNASthelegacy.pdf), accessed May 31, 2016. Pashofa is very similar to the dish of sofkey and uses the same process for processing the corn.
6) Seminole Tribe of Florida, “Chickee” (semtribe.com/Culture/Chickee.aspx), accessed May 31, 2016.
7) Charles W. Johnston to the Section of Fine Arts, June 5, 1939.