Post Office Mural, Watonga, Oklahoma
The following is reprinted from The Chronicles of Oklahoma, vol. 66, no. 4, Winter 1988-89 written by Arthur Silberman, former director of the Native American Painting Reference Library, Oklahoma City and The Watonga Republican, June 19, 1941.
“In June, 1941, a group of Cheyennes picketed the Watonga Post Office to protest the new mural depicting Chief Roman Nose and Cheyennes on the day white settlers made the land run of 1892. The news story was carried nationwide as a humorous event, a latter-day Indian uprising using the up-to-date weapons of social strife, strikes, and picket lines.”
According to an article in The Watonga Republican, June 19, 1941, “Watonga’s high-faluting, $580 mural ‘stinks’ declares Chief Red Bird, high-mogul of the Cheyenne tribe, whose race the mural is alleged to represent at the time of the coming of the white settlers to Roman Nose Canyon. Chief Red Bird, whose tribal office requires that he uphold the dignity of the Cheyennes, finds so much fault with the mural that he has just about decided to avenge the alleged misrepresentation done the Cheyenne tribe in the painting.”
The article outlines the “major bone of contention in the heart of Chief Red Bird, who lives a quiet, contented life on his 160-acre allotment is that the mural does not truly picture the Cheyenne Indians as they were at the time of the coming of the white settlers. The Chief is proud. He is proud of Chief Roman Nose, the chief of the Cheyennes before him, and the central figure pictured in the mural. But the Chief doesn’t particularly care for the Navajo tribe, and he contends the artist has given the ex-Cheyenne tribal chief the look of a Navaho.”
The issue brought state-wide and national attention to the small town of Watonga. The idea for this “publicity stunt” was credited to Gerald “Cowboy” Curtin who was the business manager for the local newspaper, The Watonga Republican. According to Silberman, who wrote the 1988 article for the Chronicles of Oklahoma, sites written proof of the hoax in the form of a letter from Ernie Hoberecht to the Edith Mahier (the artist), held at the National Archives.
The following is a reprint of this handwritten document dated June 13: “Dear Miss Mahier: Don’t worry about this Indian strike on your mural up here. It’s a publicity stunt for the Park and everybody knows it is a joke. In fact, it’ll probably make you more famous than you already are. [signed] Ernie Hoberecht. P.S. Wonder what the Navajos think?”
Although the incident was considered by all to be a method of generating publicity for the town, the Cheyennes concerns were valid. According to the Daily Oklahoman, ‘Edith Mahier, professor of art at the University of Oklahoma, appeared to be enjoying the controversy. In one article, Mahier is quoted as having said “I think a mural should arouse the interest of the people. It should do that above everything.”
Some evidence exists that indicates that Mahier discussed with Edward Rowan, assistant Chief of the Fine Arts section of the public building administration, the possibility of making changes to the mural. However, changes were never made and the mural hangs in the post office in its original form today.