Oral history interview with Richard Whitman

OOHRP, Oklahoma State University
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Little Thunder: My name is Julie Pearson-Little Thunder. Today is Thursday, March 10, 2011. I'm interviewing Richard Whitman as part of the Oklahoma Native Artists Project for the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at Oklahoma State University. We're at Richard's studio in Oklahoma City. Richard, you're a multi-media artist who has used your work to draw attention to social issues, land resources and Native language for a long time. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Whitman: Thank you Julie. [Speaks in Yuchi language.] I said, "Good afternoon. You're welcome." I will be speaking in English. I speak your language as well. (Laughs) I am from a little community, Tso Ya Ha, we call ourselves in our language. I am from a little community, Gypsy, Oklahoma. South of Bristow, Creek 1:00County. Iron Post, Sand Creek ceremonial ground, Mutteloke Methodist Church. I was born in Claremore. Claremore Indian Hospital. I spent some early summers in Pawnee, Red Rock, Oklahoma, but my orientation, how I began, is from Gypsy, Oklahoma in a Yuchi household. Quite often, I'm asked if I consider myself an Indian artist, a traditional Indian artist, an artist first or Native artist, artist-at-large. For me, it's already a given, in the sense of what I was born into, my birthright as a Yuchi being, and from there I can become anything. So I 2:00was raised in a Yuchi household, a non-nuclear family if you will. And Yuchi language was the language of the household.

Little Thunder: That is wonderful because there aren't a whole lot of Yuchi speakers, as I understand it.

Whitman: Yes. Very threatened language, endangered language. But a great program going on, an immersion program like a lot of tribal peoples, tribal language groups' immersion programs: Tso Ya Ha. We have one that's making ground.

Little Thunder: You are Yuchi and Pawnee but you were raised Yuchi. Not a lot of exposure to the Pawnee side of your family. What is your first art experience you remember, growing up?

Whitman: Well, once again, I would say it goes back. Of course, today I'm a visual artist. I feel sometimes that can be a challenge. We can place 3:00limitations on ourselves by [using the words] "visual artist" in a sense. I'm an artist. Of course, I grew up with Big Chief tablets, too, in grade school. (Laughs)

Little Thunder: Did a lot of drawing?

Whitman: Drawing I guess was [part of it]. But I think the nonnuclear family--I remember it was a very crowded little shotgun house. And different people would be staying with us, so it was the extended family. It was only when I went to first or second grade in elementary school that I saw the nuclear family. In the little books--Father, Mother, Dick, Sally, Spot, Puff, the pure nuclear family. I would see that and then I would go home. (Laughs) So, I would say that's how I began--


Little Thunder: With your mom's parents, [your grandparents].

Whitman: Right. And I spent a great deal of time outdoors. Now when I think about it, [I had] a great deal of freedom. Playing outdoors, drawing in the sand. We didn't have big bookshelves. There were no references to the European Masters. If there were any books, they weren't in the home. It was obviously a different kind of education.

Little Thunder: Did your grandma or your mom sew?

Whitman: Oh yes. Great quilts. It was that kind of hand making, creating whatever was at hand to create with. Weaving strips. My grandmother was very 5:00practical and very crafty.

Little Thunder: What experiences with art did you have in public school?

Whitman: Very limited. I mean the arts--in my high school it was very limited. My art teacher was actually the assistant football coach. So if you performed well on the football field, that was the main criteria. This is Oklahoma, you know. It was football and sports. The other options were band or music. But really, my first reference in grade school was like Mad magazine. Mad magazine was really my art.

Little Thunder: Comic books?

Whitman: Comic books. My art bible was Mad magazine: "What, me worry?" (Laughs) A little later in my life, [it] would be not my motto. (Laughs) A great boost.

Little Thunder: What about your first exposure to traditional or flat-style 6:00Indian painting? Do you remember some of the first works of Indian art you saw?

Whitman: Of course. Obviously around high school, it was Jerome Tiger. I would go to the Philbrook Art show in the '60s. The Annual.

Little Thunder: Did you enter the Annual?

Whitman: Well, by then I have arrived in Santa Fe. In '68. We submitted work to [Philbrook] and tried to open up [things]. I remember Rance Hood and Fred Beaver were real flat. But then I began to say, "Why?" It was something that I couldn't really relate to. You want to respect it, but I felt it very limiting, too. Because I had arrived in Santa Fe at that time, in the '60s. I don't know. When 7:00they say traditional art, I say, in some real ways, I grew up in what you would say traditional art. I grew up with an outdoor shitter and a shotgun house. And a language first besides English. We were poor and we didn't know it. As you get older, you are poor and you do know it, or you quickly get sensitized. So, I began to see the inequities, I guess.

Little Thunder: When did you kind of start thinking of yourself as an artist? Was it before you went to the Institute? How old were you?

Whitman: I didn't really embrace being an artist. Of course, then it was not encouraged during the Vietnam War. My older brother was in Vietnam. It was the military code--couldn't draft the next surviving son, so I really had to 8:00consider joining the armed services. It was our way, the community. I don't know if it was a matter of being overly patriotic, but it was a way out. For me, it was to go to Okmulgee Tech or go to Tulsa Welding School, or pump gas, or work for the local farmer, rancher. Nothing wrong with that, but something took me out of there, away from there, and [that] was the arts. It was a 1969 copy of Life magazine. (Laughs) I researched and found that it was the first issue of Life that ever had [a work of art on the cover]. It was always a photographic cover magazine, totally a photo magazine, Life magazine. That cover was an Indian cover with a graphic design done by a student from the IAIA [Institute of American Indian Arts]. It was the '60s. It was the counter, alternative counter-culture '60s. Music, drugs, lifestyle and the Vietnam War. But in that 9:00issue was a sixteen page layout spread on the Institute of American Indian Arts. So it was very intriguing to me. They would accept you at that time with a bad high school transcript. I could handily supply that. (Laughs) They also went on the merit of your portfolio. So that was a great balance for me.

Little Thunder: You had to submit drawings?Whitman: Yeah, samples of your work. Portfolio. And, reluctantly, the high school transcript. (Laughs)

Little Thunder: So you went in your senior year?

Whitman: Yes, my graduating year was '67 and I messed up my senior year, so I didn't graduate until '68. I belong to two graduating classes. (Laughs)

Little Thunder: What aspects of the Institute stood out for you while you were there?


Whitman: Well, it was the late '60s, it was a dynamic time. Here was this school, an art institute, a culture institute created in 1962 with the concept of embracing your culture, building from it, exploring with it, embracing it. A total departure from the whole Indian boarding school. Remake you. Kill the Indian in you. It was a new, really, a radical idea. Fortunately for me, I arrived in a great time there, the '60s, with like-minded fellow students from reservations, urban areas, Oklahoma, Indian Country. Just sort of a wide range 11:00of backgrounds, tribal affiliations and great energies. It was really a great time, when I think about it, to explore.

Little Thunder: Who were some of the students you hung out with? Some of your classmates?

Whitman: Well, it was like I said, during the Vietnam War, I always say I literally met T. C. Canon through his letters. He was in Vietnam. He would write letters back to the Institute of American Indian Arts to be read and shared with the studios. So I was volunteered, or asked, to read his letters in the studios. Advanced, Intermediate, Beginning Painting. And actually, we read them in dorm meetings, and just general gatherings on campus, student assemblies. I would read his letters. Then I met him in person a couple years later.


Little Thunder: I hope the school kept those letters.

Whitman: Yeah, I think his estate today, his sister and many friends, treasure those letters. Fellow students for me, I guess, would be Dan Namingha. He owns his own gallery in Santa Fe. He's successful, in the sense of a presence in the art world. And economically.

Little Thunder: I saw a picture of you with Gina Gray--

Whitman: Oh, Gina Gray. I remember Gina Gray, Earl Biss, Kevin Red Star. The IAIA alumni. But a great many artists-- it's a very small percentile of artists who can make a direct living from their work. You must have another livelihood. 13:00Or the great pie in the sky, inheritance. Something to carry it. (Laughs) From time to time, I have the occasion to meet someone from that era, the '60s. We're always asking about so and so. Who has gone on, deceased or passed on. We always ask who is still making art from our time, our era. And we wonder about certain people. "Wow, he was a great artist, a great sculptor. What happened?" "Well, last time I heard of him he was in the oilfields. Couldn't make a direct living from his work." You always wonder about people. I do. There were some really great energies, and their work was left there, in the collection. Some people have had to move on to other livelihoods and circumstances.


Little Thunder: What subjects did you focus on while you were there?

Whitman: Well, I rarely went to class. (Laughs) No. My first teacher was Otellie Loloma, a Hopi, at the time was married to Charles Loloma. Very interesting concept by the IAIA. They hired--their faculty/staff was really working artists. Allan Houser, Charles Loloma. And they balanced it with degreed or trained, teaching-certified art teachers. It was a great balance because [when] you're talking about Charles Loloma, [he's] renowned. Turned jewelry around. And of course, Allan Houser's story is his own, for sculpture. I arrived there just in 15:00time. I caught Fritz Scholder,'68- 69, in a drawing class and beginning painting. That was good--the faculty of artists. I think I was very influenced as well as my fellow students by encouragement of your painting instructor. But, I began with Otellie Loloma, Hopi, and moved across the hall to Fritz Scholder. I remember walking to the studio once when I arrived and there was some music of the time playing. Sixties rock, drug-infused, with these huge canvases. Scale--seven, eight foot paintings. (Laughs) That was before headphones. Very alive, the energy. Huge, broad brushes. Supplies were made available. Canvas, 16:00huge rolls of canvas, acrylic, oils, brushes. Then across the hall was, well, I wouldn't say traditional painting, but there was Indian music playing. It was different but great energy as well. And there I was. It was hard not to--I would wander back and forth. Great energy, visual energy, visual language. [Before IAIA, I used to think] to be an artist you almost had to be a painter, but arriving there you see all these other mediums, other disciplines.

Little Thunder: What about photography? Did you study it formally at the Institute?

Whitman: No. There was Kay Weist. She was a professional photographer as well. Sort of the Ansel Adams School, New Mexico. It was sort of the yearbook, campus 17:00paper, newspaper, staff, students. Photography--she did offer it. It was only a few years later that I really explored it. I began as a painter, you know. I was very insecure about [my] artist [ideal]. (Laughs) To be a painter or a sculptor. (Laughs) Then there was jewelry. Of course, IAIA offered creative writing, drama, theater, dance.

Little Thunder: Did you participate in the theater program or creative writing?

Whitman: Yeah, creative writing. I got in there for a couple of years, a couple semesters. Of course, the dance teacher was always trying to encourage [us, but] we were too masculine--We were too manly. (Laughs) Too manly, masculine. We can't do that. (Laughs) But there were some great dancers, traditional dancers. 18:00And then, modern dance. When I think about that, we sort of impose [our] own limitations because you feel threatened or you are not strong enough or free enough. But a couple years later, I sort of embraced it. And I sought out photography, as well.

Little Thunder: You went to Wounded Knee in 1973 and that was sort of a turning point for you, I guess. First, let's go to Cal [Arts]. You transferred [there].

Whitman: California City Arts. They came recruiting to Santa Fe. I forget how many that year signed up to go to Cal Arts. Of course, when I arrived there, I realized some of the students didn't show up. That was '72, I think. Prior to 19:00that, I was living in Santa Fe. We'd finished school and there was a community film project that came out of Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City, and it picked certain cities for the Black community, Black film makers, Latinos. And Santa Fe was selected--the IAIA, their campus--was selected to host this community film workshop to encourage or train young Native film makers. George Bordeaux, Blackfoot, early '60s IAIA alum, was the director/instructor. We hooked onto that program, so I stuck around for '71-'72 and was living there. Did the starving artist thing. But the community film workshop was great.

Then this recruiter came from Cal Arts. We met him. He looked at the portfolios and our work, so we got accepted. And I, of course, was so idealistic and so 20:00egotistical that I thought I was accepted totally on the merit of my portfolio. When I arrived, I realized they were meeting their minority quota as well. They didn't have any Native Americans in their student population. (Laughs) Some students showed up and some didn't. I felt a little alone there. But a great school. I learned later that it was a very prestigious school, Cal Arts. Even today. At the time, I felt a little alienated. If just a couple more students would have shown up--

Then, instead of a full scholarship, it was based on that one semester. The second semester, my tribe, the Muscogee Creek Nation, wouldn't fund my balance of tuition because it was an out-of-state school. And an arts school at that! (Laughs) "We will send you to pipe fitting school in Chicago, but art school? 21:00Come on." But anyway, Cal Arts was really a good experience. It got me to Los Angeles. Ran into long lost cousins who had signed up for relocation in the '50s. I basically hadn't seen some of these people since they left our community in grade school, '55, '56 and '57. When I ran into them they were students at UCLA. (Laughs) Came back to Oklahoma summers to visit every few years. They basically grew up in Los Angeles, greater Los Angeles. A huge urban Indian community, historically. Los Angeles Indian Center. It was really another step for me.

Little Thunder: So that was just as much as an education as the Cal [Arts] classes?Whitman: Yeah, you know, I think Gypsy to Santa Fe, those are my 22:00stepping stones. Santa Fe to Los Angeles--

Little Thunder: When did you get a hold of a camera?

Whitman: When I left Santa Fe. '70-'71. A great pawn shop camera, $25 [Rolliflex], double reflex lens, I guess. But the community film workshop provided us with cameras. There was a Bolex sixteen millimeter [film camera]. So that was a great intro, that community film workshop with George Bordeaux. That was a great model for a number of years. Really got the possibilities of being behind the camera. We were so ready to be in front of the camera always. (Laughs) Dandied up for the cameras. (Laughs)

Little Thunder: Was the next kind of pivotal moment when you went to Wounded 23:00Knee in '73?

Whitman: Definitely. But then, I was in this limbo because of no funding for the second semester [of school]. I was going down to L.A. because Cal Arts was north of Los Angeles, Valencia, Newhall area, so I would catch a bus or catch a ride with some student in a car. Sometimes my cousin Gladys Big Pond and them would come to Cal Arts and pick me up. So, I started spending more and more time in L.A. Then I went to this meeting at UCLA and Wounded Knee was on T.V. for the second or third day. And there was this media blackout of it. They had a meeting off-campus, some non-students--it was this big meeting one evening. I went and 24:00that night two or three women, actually, Native women, stood up and said, "We are going to drive up tonight. If any of you men--"

Little Thunder: They challenged you.

Whitman: Yeah, that was a great challenge. It was this media blackout essentially. We went. They set a time to come back, a meeting place. Three or four cars drove out of L.A. I had a jean jacket and t-shirt. Woke up and we were in Las Vegas, Reno, Nevada. Next thing was Nebraska. It was another very pivotal stepping stone in my life at that time. In the sense of an artist, cultural 25:00worker, it really made me. By then, I realized out of the Santa Fe experience, a strong case for being an artist. The political ramifications of being an artist as well. When one looks around the world, you see artists. I began to look in Guatemala and Central and South America. The Indigenous struggles there, for me, were artists. The writers, community cultural activists were always in the forefront of those struggles, even today. For the most part, those are the ones that were arrested, incarcerated, murdered, so I began to see the real power of--


Little Thunder: Of art that takes on issues.

Whitman: Yeah, art that has a greater capacity. It's not just necessarily art to sell, art for the gallery, art to hang above the sofa. I'm not downplaying them. I'm just saying art is much bigger. I hadn't known that. The experience at Wounded Knee--a number of IAIA alumni arrived there and were there in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. The alumni from there that I met, on their land, on their turf, if you will, it was another way of meeting them, being supportive, their guests. To stand with them and to re-meet, even after being students in Santa Fe at IAIA.


Little Thunder: One of the first works of art that I saw by you was the Street Chief series. Can you explain the term, Street Chief, and talk about what inspired that series for you?Whitman: I think the time was when I returned from Wounded Knee, '73. Prior to that, I'd ridden a Greyhound bus from here to Santa Fe in '68. And Tulsa to Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Albuquerque. But the stopover in Oklahoma City--the Greyhound bus station was near downtown, Sheridan and Reno. Skid Row, if you will. Very high, visible numbers of Native people. And 28:00when I returned from Wounded Knee, I was seeking my mother. She had an address in Oklahoma City, and that's how I arrived in Oklahoma City. It was before Native American Centers or American Indian Centers or urban centers for Native people, so really, the first place to go inquire about someone, you go to an Indian bar. I did. "Do you know so and so? I'm so and so's son." They would come in and they would make some reference. It was part of the network before there was any established social advocacy centers. So, I found this address for my mother, but it was on Skid Row. I had this old camera, beginner's camera--one was confiscated at Wounded Knee, my Pentax 1000. A beginner's camera, the 29:00ultimate. No distractions, just point and (gestures). My friends always tease me that my first collectors were the F.B.I. (Laughs) Confiscated my little Pentax and about a dozen rolls of black and white film. We filed for it several times but it was never returned. Good luck. And I had photos from the inside!

But I landed another camera, I began to pack a camera. I would go down on the streets--I did the whole thing, myself, on the streets. The plas[ma center] in the daytime. Hustle, scuffle on the streets. But I remember this voice--those 30:00store fronts are all torn out now, all these empty store fronts and Skid Row bars--and this voice came out of this little dark doorway. And it was in the Yuchi language. (Speaking Yuchi.) "Where do you think you're going?" or something like that. This person recognized me, but it was in the language, so it caught me. I stepped back (Speaking Yuchi) "You know me?" And there was this man--he would disappear from our community from time to time. He had enough respect for his family and their name, that when he would go on his binges--and he was an alcoholic--he would get out of the way from the community. He would go 31:00to Tulsa or Oklahoma City, so he could blend in. Be anonymous in a way. He would go for months, and then he would come back. It was him. Big Jake. He teased me and I gave him some change. Then I begin to see there were several tribal affiliated people sharing the jug. Seeing these beautiful men with their own histories. It was something I didn't understand. I think I was drawn to it in a way I didn't know at the time. I still don't know what moved me. I didn't have any intentions of that becoming the Street Chiefs [series].

And there was a lot of mistrust of me, of the camera. They didn't know what I 32:00was up to, what I was using this for. Even though I was Native myself, with the camera was still a mistrust. It took me years, just being there myself. I think I was drawn to them because it was something I didn't understand. I didn't understand the circumstances. How you could be homeless? A lifeway--style, if you will. Homeless or vagrant or down and out? Because they came from a rural community. It was supportive, even though families--it was supportive. I didn't understand it for the most part. When I think about it now, I think I didn't 33:00understand it. I was drawn to that. Not to romanticize it. I didn't want to be like that. But I didn't also want to be judgmental. That was always my concern, for it to be non-judgmental with the lens. When I revisit some of the photos, I look at those men and I remember them. They helped me. I remember they looked right back at me. They looked right at me. And it was not necessarily just through the lens, in a mechanical way, it was--

Little Thunder: Connecting. You said something really eloquent, that you reject comparisons other social photographers like Dorothea Lange. "I am not a visitor 34:00to my experience and I do not leave that world when I finish shooting." [One] photo I would like for you talk about a little bit was this Indian man on the street, standing underneath that sign that says "Buy Oklahoma."

Whitman: It had to be in the late '70s, the Department of Commerce, Department of Agriculture, someone had this promotion. "Buy Oklahoma." Of course, it was a cowboy and Indian logo, but I had seen the billboard on numerous sites [and] I shot it by itself. But this particular man I had befriended, he was a Kiowa man. 35:00He was in some earlier images. I titled him "Street Patriarch." I knew him. I began to know these men over the years. They came from these great lineages, great family. Descendants of chiefs. Great histories. Their own personal histories, for that matter. But that day I caught him--because this billboard is near this recycling, aluminum recycling, where they sell cans and whatever they find. [And] by the time I turned around, he was coming. He was there. I didn't go get him and stage him. There was a little aluminum recycle place, and he was on his way back from there. (Laughs) I turned around and there was the 36:00billboard. I had forgotten about that. And there he was. I said, "Wow." Serendipity. He was just there. Bam!

I was amazed. Of course, context is always important in anything. Politics, history, life in general. Arts for sure. I remember there was an exhibition, it was touring across the country. It originated in the East Coast. Homeless in America. Basically, the focus was urban homelessness. Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, then the West Coast. It was coming through here, to the Oklahoma Photography Museum. So I tried to hook on my Street Chiefs. We finally worked it 37:00out, but once again it was context. They said, "What's special about this? Native homelessness--aside from the obvious contradiction. Homeless in your own homeland." That's what [it is]! Context. Historical displacement! Just as I was arriving in Oklahoma, there are a handful of indigenous [people living on the street]. We make this our home. Context. Finally I had to stand by the work and explain it. There is always a risk of over-explaining, but sometimes it's necessary. They let me hook on. Gave me a space with the traveling exhibit, so it was good in that sense. It was the Buy Oklahoma. I built it around that image 38:00for my arguing points. (Laughs)

Little Thunder: Were you able to make any kind of living from the sale of some of those photographs in the early days?

Whitman: No. Even today, I try to keep them together. I wanted them to remain together. Very helpful for me in the '80s was Edgar Heap of Birds, who had seen the work and said, "You need to get it out there. It needs to be shared. [It's] a way to push, not just push your work, but push the perimeters of the photography or art or Native art." He was very encouraging and managed some sites and made some real relevant connections for me in terms of some art organizations, art spaces.

Little Thunder: So you started connecting with museums and institutions a little 39:00bit more?

Whitman: Some Native curators and probably Native artists argued that I was showing a negative side of their Indian culture. [But others understood the work in the larger context of being homeless in your own mind.]

But no, I never made any money. And it was never my intent. I don't know how one makes money. (Laughs) But if you do, is it too late for me? (Laughs) Can I cut a deal here? (Laughs)

Little Thunder: It's kind of like there are these parallel worlds, work that has a commercial market, a big mass audience. [And] then there is this other kind of 40:00work, equally important. And it's a struggle to survive to do that kind of work.

Whitman: Unfortunately, I am one of those artists. I think you're right. The photo, the image, the subject, can move you, make you feel. [The sign] Buy Oklahoma is a visual image, so it makes you want to see. Then it makes you curious. So it's a way of engaging you, the viewer. I think the work is 41:00successful in a sense, perhaps not economically successful. I'm not a purist, and I'm definitely not a romantic about that because it was a disturbing scenario, disturbing circumstance to me. I definitely didn't want the work to be romanticized or the subject or that circumstance. But I wanted it to be explored, to be considered.

Over the years, since the '70s, '80s, this work on the Street Chiefs--I'd meet a grandson or a granddaughter [who'd say], "That was my grandfather. That was my 42:00grandma's brother," or so. Or aunt. For me, when I think about it now, those kinds of returns, from descendants, they can identify with that particular person in a photo. In some cases it may be their only reference to that person. I think that's important, even if I never knew some sides of my family. So, to see a photograph of my grandfather once in the Sapulpa Historical Society--Martha Wildcat, one of our elders, she gave me this small photo twenty 43:00years ago, and said, "This is your grandpa, Long George. Old Man Long George." I had never seen him. He had passed on before I came along. It may have been an anonymous historical photo from the Historical Society, but me, I can make the connection. So, I think from time to time, the possibilities of that [are] helpful. In that sense, I'm not a pure photographer or a pure portrait photographer or fine art photographer. It's a medium to be used, a medium to enhance mixed media or multimedia.

Little Thunder: Your Homeland series, which came out I guess in '92, or was 44:00exhibited [then], were those all collages?

Whitman: The Homeland series, they were kind of box constructions, too. Photo, painting, collage, text. I'm very big on this in the latter part of my life, as I've matured. (Laughter) I think it's about not just my tribal mythology as a Yuchi citizen, but my personal mythology as well, or one's lived experience. So those collages came from that. I began to look at myself, where's my pie in the 45:00sky? I am waiting for my great inheritance. How am I participating and sort of promoting my own demise here?

Little Thunder: In what way?

Whitman: I mean, in the sense of not having any political awareness, just sort of the top side. The context. In my personal family, not having access to land to build on, to live on. Part of that Homeland series is about the homeland, before the very popular image, poster and t-shirt [came out]. Homeland Security 46:00and fighting terrorism. I think one looks abroad and you look at the world, the lack of world peace. But then, actually, one must look at their own backyard.

Little Thunder: So there's work [to do]? Decolonizing the mind?

Whitman: Right, exactly. That's what made my own personal mythology. It's about working on myself, and then going to work on others. But one must work on themselves without being totally--I haven't declared my self-importance here, lately, through any project. (Laughs) I think one has to be responsible for 47:00their work. If one says one is an artist, writer, photographer, poet or whatever, then one should be it. I don't mean that to be bounding or binding. In the same way, if one claims to be Native American, one should be it. I have plenty of friends, close friends, artist friends--I never had to worry about making that declaration. I think one must work on themselves.

Little Thunder: There's a much smaller circle of artists doing this kind of cultural, political kind of activist art. Has it been really helpful to have 48:00friendships with those artists?

Whitman: Oh yes, definitely. It is very lonely out here on the prairie. (Laughs) It is. Edgar [Heap of Birds] formed this artist co-op. It's called The Makers. Pat Mousetrail, Shan Goshorn. Photography, beadwork, painting and writing, and conceptual [art]. In what ways is art not conceptual to begin with? It's always very helpful here in Oklahoma because one is totally surrounded, at times, by 49:00the pure art marketing aspects. I don't argue that. People who are trying to provide and make a go of it. But I will argue for the point that one should be open to other possibilities and not limit one's self.

Little Thunder: What museums have purchased your work for their permanent collections?

Whitman: IAIA. I think Dartmouth. I'm still waiting, it's pending, the National Museum of the American Indian. It's pending. They promised to revisit my work. With the budget cuts, you know. I am waiting for the great casino in the sky. (Laughs) The great pie-in-the sky casino.

Little Thunder: Do you feel you're well represented in Oklahoma or better 50:00represented outside of Oklahoma?

Whitman: Probably outside of Oklahoma. It's the old proverb, what was it?

Little Thunder: You're never a prophet in your own country. (Laughter) I know that one.

Whitman: Such a cliché. But I'm appreciated just enough by my family and grandchildren, so that's what keeps me [going]. It's encouraging, from time to time, to see that the work can be far-reaching.

Little Thunder: Have you [taught] workshops in art?

Whitman: Oh, yeah, I was on the roster for the State Art Council for many years in the '80s.

Little Thunder: Photography and painting?


Whitman: And creative writing and mixed media. Short of art therapy. That's what I meant by one's personal mythology. Art is a vehicle--it can be therapeutic in a sense. For me, it's an alone endeavor, not necessarily a lonely one. Workshops--it was a great program, the art in the school, because you subcontract the work. Then you are self-employing yourself. It's a contract with the school or whatever site you opt for. It gives you the balance, how much work you want to take on, and how much you want to pursue your own work.


That was important to me. Early on, even from the Native American Center days, my single greatest provider when I had a young family starting and [was] still trying to keep my art was Native American Centers hiring us as youth counselors using art. Substance abuse programs or these drop out programs trying to build some model [for the future]. At one point, I told my children, "I want to go full-time, trying to pursue my work. It's my love." We certainly had some harder times then, but the Arts Council came through, so it was very helpful. A good, relative pay scale for services. I signed up for programs behind the walls, 53:00penal systems, alternative schools, substance abuse, and senior citizen centers. So, it was fulfilling in that sense.

Little Thunder: It brought something back to your artwork?Whitman: Yeah, it helped pay some bills, but the real part of it was the outreach. Not necessarily people who, how do I say it, pursue arts because they think it is some kind of leisure activity, a hobby or something. It can be more. It can be revealing. It can be sensitive and for your own self. It doesn't necessarily have to be 54:00shared. It can be encouraging in that sense. You don't have to be a pure artist in that way. It is okay to do it [for yourself].

Little Thunder: You had a one-man show at the Museum of the American Indian [at the Smithsonian]. What year was that?

Whitman: 2003, I think. What was the title of the exhibit? It was sort of a transition show for the opening of the new museum in D.C. It was a site in New York. It was really good company because you got selected. It was a great honor for me.

Whitman: I had these great ideas [for submissions], but I couldn't realize them because I didn't have the finances, the money. There is a great curator at the 55:00museum. He called me and said, "Your name is in this mix." Truman Lowe. He's Ho-Chunk Winnebago. He was the curator at the museum there. He was also head of the art department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I've always been a fan of his work and his great wit, his great Winnebago Ho-Chunk humor. (Laughs) But he called me, and I was very open and honest with him. "I don't have the money to realize [the project]. I've got the ideas and the concepts and the images I want, but I don't have the proceeds." So, he said, "Don't worry. That doesn't matter. Just agree to do this." Basically he just calls me and says, "What are you thinking?" (Laughs)

Little Thunder: So he bought into your project, provided some funding?


Whitman: He said, "Come. I'll make some arrangements." So I went to the University of Wisconsin as a visiting artist. They had a great digital program there and with assistants. It was great.

Little Thunder: What was the project that you ultimately contributed to the show?

Whitman: It was a photo-based image, but it was part of this other narrative. It was a series. Actually, when I got the call from Truman [that] my name was in the mix and being considered and narrowed down, I was going through a time with my sobriety and some issues. I had just come off one of my five hundred year old 57:00binges, and was sitting on my front porch alone. Those of us in the know have experienced that. You begin to bottom out, it doesn't matter who you are, what you are. But the call came from this great man, this great voice, Truman Lowe, this Ho-Chunk. He has a Trickster's quality in his voice. (Laughs) But earlier that evening I had these experiences--and I had the great opportunity to relate it back to Truman. It was this evening storm going up in Oklahoma. Summer storm. Across the street from me was all these leaves. And a little whirlwind began to happen there, in that front yard across the street from me. It turned and turned 58:00and turned and began to spiral up. Within that spiral of leaves was a black figure. It became the shape of a bird. Then the whirlwind began to move out of the yard and move into the middle of the street.

First, I was little fearful. Then, I stood up from the chair and walked off the old wooden porch into my yard and walked toward the middle of the street. This huge whirlwind of leaves, this black bird. Then the wind went away and all the leaves began to trickle down and this black bird began to come down. By the time it hit the street, it was a big, black plastic trash bag. Wow. And Truman's call 59:00and that nonverbal communication. And his call over the phone. So it was that messenger. A lot of cultures have a messenger. Yuchis, we have them, too. Specifically, a bird. So, I began to think about that. That became my theme for my Messenger series. I don't like to call them that. Some people [said], "It's a photo of a dead bird. It's a photo of a dead coyote. It's a photo of a dead 60:00buffalo skull."

Whitman: This is a series about messengers. It's taken from the old Ghost Dance, the old Pawnee Ghost Dance songs. "The messenger says so, the messenger says so, the messenger says so." Anyway, there are these things in there. It was really a [difficult] time in my life, as well. Alone. So, it's pain and a lot of variables in there. Denial. Denying help or outreach from others. It's a very selfish way to be. Anyway, somehow that messenger came to me, helped me through 61:00that art. The images and the work. It was titled the Messenger series-- The coyote had his own narrative. It wasn't just a decaying, dead coyote. It was a ranch in Texas where they actually shoot coyotes, and hang them up on trees and fence posts. So, I did these images for that and I had them and I hadn't really showed them anywhere. I'd been doing them in a small way. I got a friend to help 62:00me load them up, scan them and build them. Wisconsin printed them on a big scale, scaled them up. I wanted them scaled so I could see them.

Little Thunder: They were large prints on Vellum?Whitman: Yeah. Big scale on some real archival paper. They printed them a couple ways. Truman was a curator, so he shipped them from Wisconsin straight to New York. It was great.

Little Thunder: You had a piece accepted by the Vienna Biennale, which is a famous international art show, and I was wondering if that was the same year as [Edgar] Heap of Birds show in 2007?

Whitman: I think Edgar's was just what, a couple years ago? The Biennale is every two years. I know now the National Museum of the American Indian is 63:00embracing it.

Little Thunder: Did they recommend your work?

Whitman: Well, we kept [asking] who is going to represent America at the Biennale. There's only so many artists , several or a couple of artists from each country to fill the pavilions. So it's very prestigious and the oldest [international exhibition]. Native artists--when were we going to be considered? So, it was a push by Bob Hazous and Nancy Mithlo. We formed a sort of artist [organization]--some writers, poets, and some visual artists. We can raise our own money and take the initiative. Curate our show. Go buy our own space. Go. Take ourselves instead of waiting for the NEA [National Endowment of Arts] or the selection committees and that whole political process that happens. So it 64:00just formed in Santa Fe. Umbilicus, I think that was the first show we did. But anyway, everybody pitched in some money or got some sponsorship.

Little Thunder: You went to Vienna?Whitman: Well, I didn't get to go, but the group went. [My artwork went to Vienna. LaDonna Harris sponsored my part of the costs for the show.] [Each] one of us had to finance our own plane ticket [and travel expenses] as well. It was a great challenge. The challenges of raising money to be self-sustaining, to work that way together and try to go instead of 65:00waiting for it. We've already done that [with] the Indian hospitals, the treaties. [Legal] settlements. Someone has to take the initiative.

Little Thunder: A lot of your educational efforts have gone into trying to raise the consciousness of museum curators and the public about opening up to grassroots Indian voices. Do you feel like you are making progress there?

Whitman: I've been very fortunate. Some great writers, Native women writers and men who are interested in my work. It's like you don't have to give them the whole Indian 101. They're already there. I think writers, critical writers, know how to read the work, or can do a different take on your work. It's very encouraging for me.


Little Thunder: You've been moving towards film acting, War Party, Lakota Woman. 67:00You've been in two of Sterlin Harjo's films, Barking Water and Four Sheets to the Wind. What was that like that?

Whitman: I'm also a liar and a horse thief. (Laughs) Film is far-reaching. Greater audiences. I've had to reinvent myself. I'm not a pure painter. It's too late for me to be a C.E.O. or go back to law school. (Laughs)


Little Thunder: You have a great presence [on film].

Whitman: I'm lucky I'm surrounded by some great grandchildren and young children who have more digital technology savvy than I do, so they come to my aid. It's evolving and changing. It is another way of working, another way of seeing. I like the oral as well. The oral storytelling. That could be a poet, storytelling, playwright, stage. I heard some great story tellers, storytelling, in the home. Most of the time I didn't pay attention. (Laughs) Even the moral ones. Of course, Indians are some of the greatest story tellers around. Indians love stories. They are great story tellers. My days in the bar--some great story 69:00telling. (Laughs) The liar's club meets every Saturday afternoon. We'd play and we'd close at midnight. Closing time. Last liar standing. Some great storytelling, man. (Laughs) God. Old veterans, World War II. Indians, non-Indians it didn't matter. I liked that. And of course, a large part of my life has been the nonverbal communication. The visual arts.

Little Thunder: That's a very important part of film acting. Did you contribute some lines or action to Barking Water?

Whitman: Yeah, I want to add my credit line. (Laughs) No, Sterlin was great to 70:00work with. Worked with him on Four Sheets to the Wind. My sister [Indian way] Casey Camp was in theater and had worked with Sterlin on a short piece called Goodnight Irene. Anyway, he told me--I didn't know this until after the fact--he sort of had us in mind for this project. It turned out it was Barking Water. When I first worked with him was Four Sheets to the Wind and it was in a studio in Tulsa. It was this narrative voice in the Muscogee language. And it's a language totally opposite from the Yuchi language.

Little Thunder: (Laughs) And you did a great job.

Whitman: A short couple of hours in a studio in Tulsa turned out to be an all- nighter. (Laugh) Went through a couple of engineers who stayed with us. 5:30 the 71:00next morning, I think, we left the studio. In fact, the studio technician at the board who stayed with us was probably speaking better Muscogee than me. (Laughter) He was correcting me. But it was great to work with Sterlin because he realized the importance of the language. I live here, man. I got to live here, man. We got to get this right. He knew the importance of the language because he grew up with it in his grandmothers.

It was great way to work. Just sound it out and not memorize it. I hung around some--I heard Creek when I was child and I remember sort of the nuances of it. Then working with him on Barking Water, he sat down with Casey and me and told us this is how he felt the scene, how he saw it, how he wrote it, these 72:00characters, this scene. But also, it was very open. He asked us, "How do you see it? How would you do it?" So we did it off his page, his script. And he gave us an option to improve, was open to our suggestions. There were some scenes, Casey and I both agreed we probably wouldn't say anything in our anger. More contained. We'd internalize our anger. It was too easy or obvious to physically do it. The internalizing of it is simmering. The real pain, anger is--phew! He was open to that. It was a great way to work with him as a director and at the same time, gain a trust.


Little Thunder: I've always liked your titles, the way you play on words, irony or humor. How important is it for you to find the right title for a painting or photograph?

Whitman: Well, visually, idealistically, the work should stand on its own. It wouldn't necessarily have to have a title. There's no rules, though, that I've broken. (Laughs) I like to play on words. I like titles but I also believe in strong visual work that can stand on its own. Then sometimes you have to consider, "Well, maybe I am reading too much into the title." The title can take them away from the visual language. It can be misleading or the viewer needs to 74:00bring it. I've added titles and text in the work intentionally. That's part of the work for me. I'm not really bound by that. It depends on the work, you know. I love the play, the word play to begin with. In my Yuchi language, I'm not speaking it enough. It is a language I don't speak enough. And for English, I'm not totally Oklahoma vernacular. (Laughs) I got in this great--not a great debate--with this woman. I had this title on a painting called Rain Crow. Well, she translated it. She was researching. [She said,] "It's not a rain crow, it's 75:00a thrush or it's from this certain bird family. It's not a crow at all." I said, "I know. Does it look like a crow?" (Laughs) "[But] your title!" What's the study of birds? What is that called?

Little Thunder: Ornithology.

Whitman: That's a big one in Norman. (Laughs) George Sutton [Avian Research Center]. Bird study. She sent me all the Latin pronunciations. The whole background of this. I said, "It's Oklahoma vernacular. It's how I heard it as a child." I heard the sound first. Then I heard people [say], "Rain crow" or "evening crow." Rain Crow. It wasn't a caw-caw. See, there's a title that challenged this person. It's vernacular. That's all I was after. That didn't sit 76:00too well with that person. (Laughs)

Little Thunder: I wanted to ask you about your signature, Tso Yo Ha, which means Yuchi in the Yuchi language. Is that kind of a statement as well?

Whitman: Yes. [Sound of a train.] (Laughs) Oh I forgot. This is the time for my Hank Williams song. (Singing) "And when the Lord made me, he made a rambling man." (Laughs)

Little Thunder: So [your signature]'s basically saying, my name is the same as my tribe, not an [individual] Indian name. Is that a statement about maybe taking the ego out of being an artist? What were your thoughts?


Whitman: That's a very good take. I think it's a very ego-based endeavor, being an artist. Such individualism. It's my idea, it's my painting, it's my process. Then the counter balance of that, is co-op, the ceremonial. The well-being of the community or tribe or family, larger families, it's always been communal. You put that in. Collaboration today, in America, it's very hard, it's so 78:00individualistic. But in some cultures, Indigenous cultures for sure, it's been a part of the survival. Yeah, I think I was consciously considering that.

But Tso Yo Ha, I was thinking of that a few days ago. We have this word, it's a concept or it's a prayer, Gohantone, our reference to Creator or God or Maker. But literally, in English, Gohane is breath. Life's Breath. That's what it really is. Even without religion or overly religious overtones, a reference to 79:00Gohantone [is] life's breath. I think about how I heard my grandmother and some of the old people talking. They would make these great, reverent prayers for us when we were children. Without going to church. In a small room. Bed. I was thinking of that whole thing and the strange thing of juxtaposing or translating English into making some sense in some Indian concept. Or back the other way. But then, [me], the Tso Ya Ha--they can call you different names, give you 80:00different names. Nicknames, funny names. Busted Shoes, Goes Barefooted All Summer, Never Wears Socks. Overalls. Give you funny, different names. Or it can be very prominent, proud names, too. It's either way. The nicknames, you know. It was Black Swallow or Likes Grape Dumplings, Hangs on the Apron. (Laughter) I tried to identify the Sun Man, Tso Yah, Tso Ya Ha, it's the Sun Being. So that's matrilineal, a woman's view. The sun was literally menstruating. The blood, 81:00offspring of the sun. The language is different than the English way [of translating it]. Blood of the Sun, Children of the Sun, Yuchi. Yuchi is, I think, Creek for some other reference, as you know. We got stuck with Yuchi like Creek is "Muscogee." Everyone has some other name for themselves. But I was thinking of that. So Yah Ha is Sun, Sun Boy. Not like Sonny Boy. Sun Boy. Then you get older and they give you another name. It could be like Busted Shoes. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: Yuchis are still pushing for federal recognition. The work 82:00you've done in terms of representation has been really important for that.

Whitman: Yeah. Once we were in a conference in Atlanta, somewhere in Atlanta, Georgia. Yuchis make these pilgrimages--used to in the '50s-'60s. My mother and grandma told me in '55, they went down to the Mounds, the Mound Culture. And I used to go down with Addie George in the '70s,'80s. We were down once in the '70s at this conference with archeologists and anthropologists. Big conference. There was a professor or some professional historian giving this lecture on who were the Yuchi. (Laughter) There we were in the lobby! There was Jim Skeeter, 83:00and Addie George, [the] Wildcats, and the language being spoken right there in the lobby, among them, walking through! And there was this paper being delivered in the past tense. Obviously, it takes a real reversal of that. And we have to do it. So I did a painting from that, with [the] "Who are" question. I answer your question, "Who were the Yuchi" with a question, "Who are the Yuchi?"

I remember that. I was saying that we've long sought this recognition, but we have the Green Corn and these ceremonies and that is how we keep being who we are. I remember some of the old men now that [I] sat under the arbor with, they're gone. Because I always wanted to videotape and do documents. [They said,] "No, you don't have time for that. You participate. That's how you keep 84:00it going." You have to participate to keep it alive and ongoing. You're part of it. Your time of being responsible, your contribution is participating in whatever capacity. With or without the recognition. We say [speaking Yuchi], "Of course we are these people. Always have been." And the question you ask, "Who are these Yuchi?" (Laughs) Of course we are these people.

Of course, that's why I always ask myself. [It's] part of my personal mythology 85:00and tribal mythology. What's there to know and what's there to explain or share? Visually, through theater, politically, legislation. There's all kinds of ways of working. I think, sometimes you feel like, wow, you're not doing enough or you're not seeing the results. I'm a non-practicing Buddhist, so-- (Laughs) It's Life's Breath [when] I think about it. Buddhist philosophy, this Yuchi thing, Life's Breath. You're running on life's breath. I'm interested in yoga, the 86:00Buddhists. They have this thing [about] breathing. Consciously being in the moment. It's fleeting. Like this interview's behind this moment and it's to be treasured. Somehow you can capture that. I saw the Dalai Lama wink once. (Laughs)

Little Thunder: Okay, we're ready if you'd like to talk about your painting.

Whitman: That painting must be [from] '77 or '78. It came back to me, five or six years ago. A couple out of Tulsa sent me this image, e-mail, and asked me if 87:00I was the artist. I told them I was, and they wanted to know if I wanted to buy it back. They were downsizing their home and moving and traveling. So I asked them what price they paid for it, and I couldn't afford that. It's not what I sold it for. But they made it available to me, so it returned to me. 1978, I think this painting is from. And one's the Early Messenger, I guess. The hawk, the eagle, the red sun, and it's stretched on willow. It's a real heavy texture, with feathers and texture. Leather, canvas, texture, real layered, heavy. So, 88:00it's part of my texture narrative; how I found myself.

Little Thunder: This is a very well-known photograph of yours.

Whitman: It became the photolithograph, the new Indian artists for Santa Fe. The image is from Santa Fe 1969, IAIA campus. Even today, I'm still friends with all the people in the group shot. The person on the end is the only person in the group who is deceased, Terry Williams, who was from Pawnee, Oklahoma. So, the image became a tribute to him, as well. The person next to him is Louise Harrison, Cheyenne, from Elk City. Great bead worker. She and I rode the 89:00Greyhound bus out to Santa Fe together. She sat at the front of the bus, and I sat at the back of the bus. We didn't even talk to each other. (Laughs) She was so shy. Got to Albuquerque and we transferred buses and never said a word to each other. Typical Indians. (Laughs) Fifty years later, I said, "I love you." (Laughs) Venita Tavenpot, Fort Duchene, Utah. Ute. I saw her at IAIA alumni [reunion] and Indian Market, two years ago, I think. It was good to see her in person again. Then myself. Anna May One Star from Rosebud, South Dakota, Sidney Eare from Fort Thompson, South Dakota. Crow Creek Reservation. We were all fellow students and this particular day we had gone to put on a little performance with our regalia. (Laughs) Hence the title. Of course, this is a 90:00reversal of the negative. I was interested in the solariz[ed] feel. Look at them, Looking at Us, Looking Back at Them. I've always thought about that [title]. "Perhaps I might be interested in your culture as well!" Looking back and being looked at and looking back, so it's part of the positive and negative. I wanted to leave the gray tone scale there.

Little Thunder: Let's talk about this piece.

Whitman: This is titled Mixed Blessings. I think I titled this. It's an 91:00experimental piece. I became interested in the pixelization on it. Pixelization breakdown, if you will. It began as a pure image, I should say. Black-and-white color film, Kodak film. Then, once we got it in Photoshop, I began to play with it. Some of it was accidental. I just was open to it. It wasn't intentional. So, it's mixed media. I've added some photo-based paints to it. That [would] be another element. I've had a long fascination, interest in buffalo skulls. I 92:00collect them. So I was actually shooting [the] buffalo skull in shadows. It's a mounted, time photo [shot]--

Little Thunder: Of yourself holding the skull.

Whitman: Of course, I'm never in the photos! (Laughs) Once again, personal mythology, developing one's own personal mythology. It's like people having their own favorite part in the sky. (Laughs) Their favorite star.

Little Thunder: We're going to look at one more piece here.

Whitman: This one's kind of juxtapositioning some early black-and-white negative 93:00film images. Actually, I shot these images in L.A. down on Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards. It was a big billboard campaign when the new movies come out. That particular year I was taking these pictures, Dances With Wolves had come out.

I became interested in shooting the billboards. There was this icon, Marlboro Cowboy. (Laughs) Then down the street a few blocks was this Hollywood "Cherokee Building." So I juxtaposed. It's painted [with photo oils]. Not a pure photograph, not a pure painting. It's part of a series I did called The Absence of Our Presence, The Presence of our Absence. A body of work with public images, public information, public icons that have references to Native Americans. The 94:00cowboy's now become the symbol for the West.

I'm going to print it. This may become a print but I still have to compress it one more time. It's jessoed on the back and jessoed on the front, so it's got to be run through the press now. I have to seal it to a Masonite board. Then it will be done.

Little Thunder: Would you like to talk about this photo?

Whitman: Walter Straight, Arapaho, was one of my beloved friends, one of my first elders I met on the streets and befriended. We became friends and I invited him to my home. And he participated with me, made himself available for 95:00a number of photos. This one, of course, was Man's Best Friend. He was walking and he had this pup, young pup dog. Mostly I was after his humanity, and he offered that, reflected that. I called [the series] Street Chief --Number One, Number Two. '78, '79, 80s--I documented him over the years. Invited him to my home to eat, introduced him to my children. Very important person that came into 96:00my life.

Little Thunder: That's a wonderful piece of work. Richard, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.

Whitman: I think [the interview] worked out better here [at the studio]. Except for the train possibly! (Laughs)

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