by Gene Perry
A new exhibition at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History is providing a rare glimpse at a Native American perspective on 19th and early 20th century America. “One Hundred Summers: A Kiowa Calendar Record” features hand-drawn illustrations by renowned Kiowa artist and calendar-keeper Silver Horn.
The museum’s curator of Ethnology Daniel Swan said this calendar is valuable because it “covers a time period when native peoples had very few opportunities to express their own story.”
The traditional Kiowa calendar uses illustrations to represent events in the tribe’s history. Each year is represented by two images – one for the summer and one for the winter. The events depicted are agreed upon by tribal elders and then drawn and maintained by designated tribal calendar-keepers. The calendars were originally kept on hides or cloth, but eventually were copied into ledgers.
Silver Horn’s calendar represents 100 years of Kiowa tribal history. It begins in 1828 and continues through the winter of 1928-29, totalling more than 200 drawings on 80 pages.
The years illustrated in the calendar cover a period of huge changes for the Kiowa. In the earliest years shown, the tribe still lived as nomadic bison hunters. The introduction of guns and horses greatly expanded their culture and led to conflicts with other tribes. The final years brought increasing interactions with the United States and eventual confinement in reservations.
Among the events depicted are battles with rival tribes, smallpox and measles epidemics, land allotments and the first train to reach the Kiowa reservation. They reveal the Kiowa struggling to maintain their traditional warrior societies and religious beliefs through many calamities.
“It’s a story of survival,” Swan said.
Many of the calendar stories also speak to the collective experience of all Oklahomans. They show dramatic waves of tornadoes and environmental change bringing drought and floods.
“These are events we all share in,” Swan said.
Candace Greene, a Smithsonian scholar and expert on Silver Horn’s work, prepared titles and descriptions of each image for the exhibition. To collect the stories behind the illustrations, Greene spoke to many Kiowa living in Anadarko and Caddo County. As Swan described it, the calendar drawings function as “anchors” that modern Kiowa can use to tell detailed stories about their history.
“The stories represented in that calendar are still very much a vibrant living oral tradition,” Swan said.
Silver Horn was born in 1860 (“The Summer That Bird Appearing was Killed,” according to his calendar). Both his father and older brother also were calendar-keepers for the tribe. He was a prolific artist, and he created hundreds of drawings representing Kiowa history and tradition before his death in 1940.
Only one other full Silver Horn calendar is known to exist today. It was created in 1904 specifically for the archives of the Smithsonian Institution and covers the period from 1828 through 1904. The SNOMNH Silver Horn calendar also begins in 1828, four years earlier than Kiowa calendars by other artists.
“Entries in this calendar are probably the last drawings that Silver Horn made,” said Greene. “Before this book was found, I thought he had quit producing in the 19-teens because he was going blind. But obviously he was very committed to continuing this work. There are a few other calendars that continue into the early 1900s, but this one, with entries well into the 20th century, offers a unique perspective on that period of history.”
The calendar was donated to the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in 2001 from the estate of Nelia Mae Roberts, who ran an Indian trading post in Anadarko. The museum subsequently received a Save America’s Treasures Grant that provided for the conservation and restoration of the calendar’s fragile pages by a professional paper conservator. The process took over a year, but the restored pages are now available to be viewed for the first time by museum visitors. The exhibit will be on view through August 23.
Greene is also the author of a new book about the calendar. One Hundred Summers: A Kiowa Calendar Record will be published this spring by the University of Nebraska Press.