November 28, 2023

Stewarding Native American Stories: A Conversation with Blue Tarpalechee

What happens to a story when it leaves the author’s hands? What happens when that story is a way of sharing the history of a community and thier people across generations?

These questions are at the heart of the work of Blue Tarpalechee, a first generation Ph.D candidate in Native American literature at the University of Oklahoma (OU) in Norman, Oklahoma. Tarpalechee spent the summer of 2023 as an intern for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios (HAHS) program where he explored the legacy of the Kiowa Six (Spencer Asah, James Auchiah, Jack Hokeah, Stephen Mopope, Monroe Tsatoke, and Lois Smoky), a group of Native artists that enrolled into the art classes at OU under the directorship of Oscar Brousse Jacobson who eventually organized an exhibition of their work that toured to European cities, including the Venice Biennale in 1932.

Tarpalechee, an enrolled citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation heard about the opportunity to study the Kiowa Six at the Jacobson House (also located in Norman) from his wife Mary Deleary, (Anishinaabe), who recently received her Ph.D in Native Art History. It was the perfect place to dig into, as he said “to what extent an author maintains control of a story once it is in reader’s hand. For Native American stories, while we have had the opportunity to tell our stories, we haven't had the ability to control the telling, educate the audience, or respond to the reception.”

Tarpalechee answered a few questions about the importance of protecting the histories and stories of Native peoples through the experiences of the Kiowa Six.

Exterior view of the Jacobson House with a historic sign with its history in the front.

photo by: Blue Tarpalechee

Exterior of the Jacobson House Native Arts Center in Norman, Okalhoma.

What drew you to the internship at the Jacobson House and the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios Program?

I had known about the Kiowa Six going to my time as an undergrad at the Institute of American Indian Arts but it wasn't until I got to OU and into the collection that I was able to get a sense of their story, of their lived experience, and how the Jacobson House informed that experience.

The Jacobson House Foundation has always been [present] and supportive of the native community, both the students at the university and the broader Native American artist community here in Norman, and Oklahoma. We had the opportunity to volunteer with them, which led to [Mary and myself] using their office space for our [doctoral research].

With that came a huge sense of responsibility, because when you are occupying the same space as people whose stories are so influential, you want to do your best. When the HAHS internship came up, Mary said that this might be a good way for me to continue to explore the interdisciplinary aspects of my research.

Having the opportunity to learn and to share that story, and to see how my own work intersects with some of the themes that I came across was really rewarding.”

You write about the interconnecting legacies of the Kiowa Six and Oscar Jacobson. How did being at the place really help or hinder your understanding?

The crux of these internships is examining why the space itself shouldn't be ignored. The weight of history in those places is felt. You can see the space where these stories unfolded, where people lived their lives. For me, that was especially visceral because the Kiowa Six occupied the basement of the Jacobson House, which is so small. That's where they honed their craft, where Jacobson and his colleagues worked with the Kiowa Six to develop their art.

Jacobson’s entire house was built around being a gathering place for artists. And he built his home as kind of a celebration of light, and while there were spaces that I'm sure the Kiowa Six were able to occupy when Jacobson himself wasn't working, it is a different feeling walking down those tiny narrow steps.

It gives you pause as a visitor to think about the level of passion and dedication that had to have been evident, otherwise that wouldn't have happened. There was a sense of sacrifice that compelled me to do right by them, which is not something you get just by researching online or in the archive. It's site specific.

The Kiowa Six (National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum)

How has your own visual and artistic practice informed your writing and research?

It goes back to the work that I do with story stewardship. I would hate to be guilty of the same transgressions that I think happen all too frequently with Native stories in that they're presented without the necessary context or the sense of responsibility to the people from whom they come. I wanted to respect Jacobson. I wanted to respect the Kiowa Six. I wanted to respect the space in place as well. One thing that stood out to me as I was going through this research was that Jacobson had been a prolific educator, and the Kiowa Six were members of Jacobson's family tree of artists, albeit a divergent branch.

For instance, you can look at Jacobson's art style, and you can look at students of his who also adopted that style. It's a clear line. But the Kowa Six didn't adopt almost any of that. It exemplifies what Jacobson and the Kiowa Six had both set out to do, which was to uplift Kiowa art. He was adamant that he had as little influence on them as possible. If you were to put the Kiowa Six art next to any of the dozens of other Jacobson students’ works, you wouldn't think that they had the same instructor. Which is beautiful because the Kiowa Six remained true to themselves and true to their art traditions.

Jacobson remained true to what he was trying to do. Clearly the man had a gift for art education, and he helped the journey of dozens and dozens of artists, but he stayed hands off on this one because he felt like that was important, which [allowed the Kiowa Six] to maintain their own sense of authorial custody.

Being willing to learn and change based on the stories that you're hearing enriches the narrative as a whole.

What lessons you want others to consider when elevating the histories of Indigenous peoples?

Part of my exploration was the relationship between two viewpoints/stories/narratives and how they are often given different receptions, different weight, different levels of influence. There's a reason that dominant narratives are dominant, but when you have the opportunity to explore, the Indigenous narrative and the story of the people who facilitate the fame of the dominant narrative, it's worth doing. And the Kiowa Six, would have continued to be revered members of their community which is so important for Indigenous people today. I went in with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder because so much of their story is inextricably linked to Jacobson and to oversimplify it, would be to say he made them famous.

However, you could also say the reverse, that the Kiowa Six made Jacobson famous, too. But neither of those tell the full story, which is the lasting legacy of Jacobson and the Kiowa Six: that we have so much to learn from each other. That this kind of manufactured animosity or resistance to one narrative over the other is in some cases absolutely justified and in others completely unnecessary.

Being willing to learn and change based on the stories that you're hearing enriches the narrative as a whole.

We, as I said at the beginning, have had a scant few opportunities to really tell our own story. And oftentimes it's met with resistance, it contradicts, and it competes with the dominant narratives.

Image of a man, Blue Tarpalechee with a goatee and beard standing with his arms crossed in a plad shirt.

photo by: Blue Tarpalechee

Blue Tarpalechee spent the summer at the Jacobson House Center for Native Arts studying the Kiowa Six.

A painting by Blue Tarpalechee that depicts the Jacobson House with mountains in the background.

photo by: Blue Tarpalechee

Inspired by his time at the Jacobson House, Tarpalechee painted the Jacobson House in a style that is reminiscent of Oscar Brousse Jacobson.

The juxtaposition of these narratives is a worthwhile endeavor. It's not always going to be that one needs to take over the other, or one needs to supplant the other. It can be how do these narratives relate to each other or what's not being said that needs to be said? What can create the necessary context [for this to happen].

It's sites like the Jacobson House where these conversations live. For the people who stumble upon these sites by accident or who haven't seen themselves as somebody with even a passing connection to history or historic places, it’s important to give it a chance, because you'll find that you have this connection somewhere some way. They are a part of our collective story.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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