Last Updated on July 7, 2023
The Oklahoma State Capitol art collection expanded in 2022 to include numerous new works from Native American artists connected to the state. Headline the commissions was a portrait of Wilma Mankiller.
Wilma Mankiller’s life began in Tahlequah, OK, capital of the Cherokee Nation. From a home without electricity, running water or a telephone, she went on to serve as the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985; the first woman elected chief of a large Indigenous tribe in the United States. In 1998, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Mankiller (1945-2010) will now be immortalized in the Oklahoma State Capitol art collection thanks to a new portrait by Starr Hardridge (b. 1974; Muscogee). The commission represents one of 21 new artworks joining roughly 500 previously displayed inside the building which doubles as the state’s largest art museum. After nearly six years in storage, the artworks–old and new–have been returned and installed at the capitol following an extensive renovation.
The Oklahoma State Capitol Art Collection dates back to the 1920s. Depicted in the works are Oklahoma’s historic events, natural resources and notable people. Well-known favorites include Charles Banks Wilson’s portraits of Robert S. Kerr, Sequoyah, Will Rogers and Jim Thorpe–Oklahoma’s “four sons.” Now joining them are Mankiller, “Doc” Tate Nevaquaya (Comanche) and Chief Allen Wright (Choctaw), prominent Native American figures from state history. Other artworks from contemporary Indigenous artists connected to the state–Jessica Harjo (Otoe-Missouria, Osage, Pawnee, Sac and Fox), Dylan Cavin (Choctaw) and Anita Fields (Osage, Muscogee)–share storytelling, legends and culture related to the 39 tribal nations which today call Oklahoma home.
Mankiller’s ancestors were forced there along the Trail of Tears. Oklahoma–Indian Territory–became the unwilling home to tens of thousands of Indigenous people forced off their ancestral homelands by the U.S. government during the 1800s.
This new emphasis begins at the building’s entrance where visitors will be greeted by a video incorporating Native languages and produced by Buffalo Nickel Creative with the help of Sterlin Harjo, co-creator of the hit series “Reservation Dogs,” which is set in Oklahoma. Artwork throughout the ground floor reflects pre-statehood and Native American history. The centerpiece is a mural by Yatika Starr Fields (Cherokee, Creek, Osage) depicting the Spiro Mounds as a center of commerce in pre-contact Oklahoma.
The new commissions were financed by the Oklahoma Art in Public Places Act, signed into law in 2004, which reserves 1.5 percent of eligible state capital improvement project budgets for investment in public art representing the history and values of Oklahoma. Artists for Oklahoma Art in Public Places projects are selected by committees that include representation from the community.
Hardridge grew up in Oklahoma, but knew little of Mankiller before researching the project. Before starting to paint, he learned about how Mankiller raised tribal revenue, launched Head Start programs for kids, promoted adult education and rural clinics and bolstered infrastructure and healthcare among many other accomplishments while Chief.
Atop the portrait reads “Cherokee Nation” in the Cherokee syllabary, developed in the early 1800s by Sequoyah. Mankiller’s likeness is not painted in Hardridge’s typical pointillist style which nods to southeastern beadwork, but the floral pattern in the background is, pink chosen for the subject’s favorite color.
The gorget she wears wasn’t something she would have actually worn in life. Hardridge chose to place her in it as symbolic of her having the stature to have been able to do so. The adornment became a diplomatic exchange gift later in the tribe’s history demonstrating prominence. From top to bottom, the words “medicine,” “education” and “prosperity” are written in Cherokee, representative of Mankiller’s priorities for her people.
Her portrayal perfectly captures a modern Native woman simultaneously honoring her heritage, not choosing one over the other, providing an example of how to be both. An innovator and an ancestor.
“That’s why I was shocked when they accepted it,” Hardridge told Forbes.com of his proposal for the commission. “Either they’re going to get it or they’re not.”
Contemporary and customary. Feminine and fierce. She wears a traditional Cherokee tear dress–pronounced as in ‘tear a sheet of paper.’
“In a just world, Wilma Mankiller would have been president,” her friend, the famous writer and feminist, Gloria Steinem was quoted as having said.
“The way I’m portraying her isn’t your typical Native American woman portrayal. She’s in a position of power, she looks very stately, she has a very stoic and strong view, she’s not looking down, she’s not looking away, she’s confronting you,” Hardridge said. “A lot of times Native women are oversexualized in art and looked at as a fetish or romanticized in some way. I wanted no part of that. I wanted to give her the respect she deserves as Chief of the nation.”
And give Native girls who see her a role model.
“I want my own daughter who is an enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Nation to go see this and think that anything’s possible for her as a Native woman,” Hardridge said.
Behind Mankiller in the portrait, elements of the Cherokee flag are represented. The star for the seven clans of the Cherokee Nation. Oak leaves symbolic of the oak tree, sacred to southeastern Indians as fuel source for their sacred fires which center the Nation.
Chief Wilma Mankiller (36” x 30”) can be seen on the fifth floor in the Capitol building among other works addressing the theme “Roots of Oklahoma Commerce and Economic Development.” She can also be seen pictured on a newly minted U.S. quarter premiered in 2022.
A note about that name before moving on. “Mankiller,” Asgaya-dihi (Cherokee syllabary: ᎠᏍᎦᏯᏗᎯ) in the Cherokee language, refers to a traditional Cherokee military rank, like a captain or major, according to her biography.
“Doc” Tate Nevaquaya
Hardridge never met Mankiller. Nevaquaya (1932-1996), however, was a family friend to his Capitol portraitist Nocona Burgess (b. 1969, Comanche). “Uncle Doc” he called him. Burgess’ grandfather and Nevaquaya were pals. Nevaquaya kept an eye out for his buddy’s son–Burgess’ father–after dad passed away while the boy was still young. Nevaquaya taught Burgess how to play the Indian flute.
“I’ve always been around him and his family, I’m really good friends with his children and his grandchildren, so (the commission) was a big deal for me,” Burgess told Forbes.com.
Nevaquaya’s painting can be seen on the building’s second floor, featuring “Hall of Heroes; Hall of Governors; Oklahoma Cultural Treasures.”
“I remember as I was working on it, I would send pictures to my dad to make sure that it looked right because my dad knew him really well,” Burgess said. “The photograph that I used as reference is one that my dad had.”
Like Hardridge, Burgess looks forward to the day when his child visits the painting.
“I don’t impress my 13-year-old very often, but we were talking about it and I said, ‘someday when you’re a little old man and you take your grandkids into the state capitol, it’s going be there, even beyond that, it’s something that’s always going be there,’ and he was like, ‘that’s pretty cool,’” Burgess said.
With the renovation complete, a formal, museum-quality program to train volunteer docents has begun for tours of the Oklahoma State Capitol art collection. Anyone interested in a tour can inquire by contacting Capitol staff at email@example.com.