Yuchi and Creek painter, photographer, actor and activist Richard Ray Whitman was raised in a traditional way in the country by his Yuchi-speaking grandmother. He went on to become part the first generation educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the late 1960s. The very definition of Native American art was transformed during that period at IAIA, and in the process, so was the Native self-image.
After studying from artists we now see as “old masters” from the Native side of postmodernism, including Fritz Scholder and Allan Houser (1914-1994), Whitman picked up his camera and joined the protests and takeovers by the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s. His camera and film were confiscated when he was arrested at Wounded Knee. They were never returned.
“It became a serious joke that my first collectors were the FBI,” Whitman told Oklahoma Gazette.
While Whitman is a brilliant and critically acclaimed painter who also has worked in videography and computer graphics, creating collages and repurposing his images, his landmark Street Chiefs project, a 1970s and ’80s photo series of Oklahoma City’s homeless Indian men, might be his greatest legacy. Filmmaker Sterlin Harjo (who cast Whitman in the lead role of his 2009 film Barking Water) has acknowledged that the series partially inspired his 2015 film Mekko about the murders of homeless Native Americans in Tulsa.
Whitman admits that aesthetics in his classic series were secondary. His main goal was intimacy; he wanted to show the dignity and pain in the eyes of his subjects, which ultimately put the spotlight on some of the most marginalized people in our community. While others photographed Skid Row drunks, Whitman’s camera restored these men to humanity and showed them as displaced people — the way of life in which their ancestors thrived had been systematically destroyed over decades.
The art from IAIA was initially criticized by many Natives and non-Natives alike for not being “Indian,” as it did not follow the guidelines set down by white educators who defined commercial Indian art decades earlier.
Whitman was criticized even further for Street Chiefs for showing the negative side of Native American life. But in reality, the series upped the ante for examining social problems through Native art (something the earlier schools of Indian art tended to avoid). In hindsight, Whitman’s work is an obvious precursor to the more brutally honest portrayals of Native life we would see in the works of artists like writer Sherman Alexie, Harjo and First Nation filmmaker Jeff Barnaby.
Over the last decade, Whitman reinvented himself as an actor and has worked with outspoken Native filmmakers, appearing in Sydney Freeland’s Drunktown’s Finest, Tim Kelly and Charlie Soap’s The Cherokee Word for Water and Steven Paul Judd and Tvli Jacob’s first feature American Indian Graffiti: This Thing Life, among others.
Whitman was raised in Gypsy, a small township once located west of Tulsa. When he was in school, there were no art classes until high school, so he developed on his own, drawing with chalk on the tarpaper walls inside his grandmother’s house, which was not an unusual practice at the time.
“I remember drawing in the ground, in the dirt,” Whitman said.
Native art was not a high priority during that time. He saw the dynamic work of Jerome Tiger on a field trip to Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum of Art, which fostered the develop of the Bacone school style with its Indian Annual competitive art shows from 1947 to 1957. The style was built around the works of Acee Blue Eagle and Woody Crumbo.
“I don’t knock the old Bacone school,” Whitman said, “but there are only so many ways one can draw an Indian on horseback and a buffalo.”
Whitman did not have a strong high school transcript; he was kicked out his senior year, but he saw the Dec. 1, 1967 issue of Life magazine with the headline “Return of the Red Man” on the cover.
“It had a five- or six-page spread on the IAIA. There was an Indian rock band call The Jaggers, who were letting their hair grow long,” Whitman said, “and they showed these examples of experimental, expressionistic art. The story was saying, ‘Here is a new model, a departure from the boarding schools; instead of killing the Indian in you, here is one that allows you to embrace your culture, to create from it and to express from it.’”
Luckily, the school was more interested in student portfolios than grades.
Whitman always had an interest in photography, but he never had access to a camera until he went to IAIA.
“We were always the subject matter,” Whitman said, “but never behind the camera. That’s where the artist has control; a more self-determined image can be created when you are behind the lens.”
IAIA attracted Native students from across the county, including many Chippewa students from Minneapolis, where AIM started. Whitman was attending during the Indians of All Tribes takeover of Alcatraz, which started in November 1969 and lasted 19 months and was the first in a series of events that reshaped Native American culture. He said it was an inspiration to students at the school.
“It was the first time we saw our own people, our own presence and our own story on the news,” Whitman said.
Over that Thanksgiving weekend, he rode to San Francisco with a group to show solidarity and spent a night sleeping on Wilma Mankiller’s floor. (Mankiller later became the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation.)
Whitman was recruited to California Institute of the Arts in 1971 and was hanging out with a very active University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Indian Student Association when AIM took over Wounded Knee in 1973.
“It was a media blackout, so I caught a ride and went up there. I thought we were going for a weekend to check it out, and next thing I knew, it was 71 days later,” Whitman said. “When I went to Wounded Knee in 1973, I went as an artist; I carried a camera.”
Unfortunately, no one except members of the FBI has seen the images Whitman captured on the nine rolls of film he took from inside the occupation. He has filed the paperwork to get the negatives back from the government a couple of times with no success.
Whitman was arrested at the end of the occupation and spent a few days in a Rapid City, South Dakota, jail before all the Native Americans from out of state were put on a chartered bus and driven to Colorado.
He came back to Oklahoma and worked with the Oklahoma Arts and Humanities Council in schools, but the FBI started showing up where he was working and harassing the principal. Once he left his job, he said, the FBI started harassing his mother. He even had trouble keeping a gallery because he was labeled a radical for creating politically charged paintings, so he laid low for a while.
When Whitman would travel from Oklahoma to Santa Fe for school, he would have layovers in downtown Oklahoma City.
“I just walked around,” Whitman said. “Back then, the Oklahoma City bus station was just on the edge of Skid Row, with just some tough area bars. I saw a high number of Native people walking and drinking in the alleys and storefronts; they didn’t have money, so they couldn’t stay in the bars. They would buy wine in the liquor stores. That stuck in my mind.”
Each time Whitman came through, he walked around.
“It was a few years later that I began to take snapshots; I became friends with these guys. I ended up being on the streets for a little while myself; I sold blood plasma and drank on the streets. After a while, they were a little more accepting of me, but there was mistrust of someone with a camera because they didn’t know what my intentions were, and rightfully so. I didn’t understand it, which is why I think I was drawn to it. I did not originally set out to do photo documentation.”
Whitman learned the backstories of his subjects. One was a former Golden Gloves boxer, and some were decorated Vietnam veterans.
One man told Whitman about a Daily Oklahoman photographer who bought them all wine before he took their pictures.
“He needed them to be inebriated or nodding out or sitting in the alley,” Whitman explained. “He did a big spread in the Sunday papers. I shot that old man again — he was a descendent from a chief’s line; he was an old Arapaho man.”
Whitman points out that there is a lot of urban renewal in the area now, but in the 1970s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service were located next to Skid Row, so the Native Americans who worked in those buildings saw their own people out there every day.
“Somehow, you have to blind yourself or you look over and there’s a relative or you feel sorry and you feel helpless and hopeless from a distance,” Whitman said. “So it took a while for it to be understood.”
Whitman did not immediately exhibit his photographs, but once he realized what he had, he received criticism and acclaim in equal parts.
“When I put the work out, I had to stand by it and explain it because a lot of Indians felt like I was showing a negative part of the culture. They were already overwhelmed with photos of drunk Indians, poverty and disease, but it was always from the media, from non-Indians,” he said. “I was not just going down there on the weekend to do a shoot. I’m not an outsider; I felt like I was a part of these people I was documenting.”
Whitman notes that Street Chiefs is not about the recent phenomenon of homelessness but the historical displacement and removal of Native people from their ancestral homes.
He sees the advancements of Native art and media as an evolution of visual literacy for the culture, and visual literacy is how people take control of their own image. When an image is reconceived in a mindset that is more self-determined, that image is redefined.
“That person is not just an alcoholic; we redefine him through this medium of photography, and what do we know of his backstory? More of the story was unfolded,” Whitman said. “I was aware of the imbalance of drunken Indians, always photographed by non-Indians.”
Street Chiefs slowly won over its critics. While it was a product of the radical and avant-garde world of IAIA, people who might have disliked modern art were disarmed by the brutal honesty and powerful eloquence of the series.
Having worked with film as far back as the 1960s, Whitman said he is proud that so many of the young filmmakers he has worked with became successful.
“Sterlin took an interest in me when he was a film student at [the University of Oklahoma]; it’s been seven years since our film Barking Water,” he said. “To work as an actor and director, you have to have a trust to go somewhere with a character, and I had that trust with Sterlin.”
He laughs when Judd’s name is mentioned.
“I was an easy choice for him. I worked for nothing; I worked for food,” Whitman said.
Judd calls the creation of American Indian Graffiti his film school, where he encountered and had to resolve all the problems involved in making a movie.
Whitman sees it all as part of the evolution of visual literacy, which is an ongoing process.
“As far as us painting our emotions, our sadness, our outrage and our pain, there is a power in that,” he said. “And unpleasant as it may be, that is the real interior of one’s self. That comes through the writing, the music, the paintings, and now we see how, even in film and photography today, they are taking the next step. The next step in visual literacy is here; there are stories we can relate to.”
See more of Richard Ray Whitman’s art at Tribes 131 gallery, located in Merkle Creek Shopping Center at 131 24th Ave. NW in Norman.
Print Headline: Native champion, Richard Ray Whitman’s pursuit of art has led him to become an activist in the Native American community and pursue change in the art world.