New Tulsa mural explores Black and Indigenous solidarity
It's a windy night — not the ideal condition for spray-painting — but Pawnee artist Bunky Echo-Hawk doesn't mind. He's standing in front of a blank, large wall on the edge of downtown Tulsa, where he's settling in for the night to work on a new mural.
"It keeps the fumes away from me," he laughs, shaking a can of lime green paint.
Echo-Hawk prepares his paint cans and stencils and starts spraying connectivity lines you might see on a circuit board when you open up a computer. Those lines will be featured along with red cedar, Indigenous leaders, Black townships, maps and intertwined hair on the wall.
Echo-Hawk is an international artist who's been painting murals all over the world for more than 20 years. He's designed for Nike and Pendleton, and his paintings can be seen at the new First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City.
The mural he's working on at 3rd and Cheyenne in Tulsa explores the intertwined history of Black and Indigenous people in Oklahoma.
"[The purpose is] to kind of speak to the erasure of both Black history and Indigenous history," said Echo Hawk. "I think there is [sic] a lot of parallels that we see in both of our histories here in Oklahoma."
The project was commissioned by IllumiNative, an Oklahoma-based non-profit organization that advocates for better representation of Indigenous people in the media, education, politics and culture. They wanted to bring awareness to the parallels of Indigenous and Black history in the state, especially after the passage of HB 1775, a bill that prohibits public schools from teaching critical race theory.
It’s still in its early stages, but the mural will resemble a giant ledger and with the names of tribal nations and the dates they were removed to Oklahoma. Mixed in will be the names of all 50 Black towns that were established in the state after the Civil War.
Another feature will be prominent Indigenous leaders, including Chief Joseph, the Nez Percé leader. The Nez Percé is no longer an active Tribe in Oklahoma, even though they were removed here.
"A lot of people don't know that, and it kind of speaks to the erasure of our history in Oklahoma," Echo Hawk said.
Alexander Tamahn is also working on the mural. He's part of Black Moon Collective, a group of all Black artists based in Tulsa. In the summer of 2020, during the Juneteenth celebrations, Black Moon Collective painted a large Black Lives Matter mural near Greenwood.
The mural he's working on doesn't have a title yet — they're just calling it "Black and Indigenous Solidarity" for now.
He said part of there was a lot of conversation that went into creating this work, particularly around the "land back" movement and what that means for Black Oklahomans.
"We really started focusing on the Black townships that were all throughout Oklahoma," said Tamahn.
He said many people don't know a lot about that history, or the history of the Freedmen — formerly enslaved people who came with citizens of the Five Tribes on the Trail of Tears. Tamahn said they were aware of the fact that they are on appropriated land, which was stewarded at one point by Black farmers.
One way Tamahn wanted to represent the intertwined history of Indigenous and Black peopel was through hair.
"Colonization impacted both of our respective peoples. One of the first, I think, assaults on our personhood was through our hair," Tamahn said.
He says hair spoke volumes about who you were in both the Black and Indigenous communities. When Indigenous people were forced into boarding schools, their hair was cut to erase their identity. He says similar things happened to enslaved Black people.
"When we consider all of the conversations and just the tone around the subject of Black hair and how that kind of translates and has impacted the culture," he said.
A Black artist and an Indigenous artist working together using bright colors, Tamahn and Echo Hawk will connect the two communities with maps of Black townships, connecting computer circuitry and red cedar, something a lot of people think of as an invasive species. Bunky Echo Hawk explains why.
"I think it's indicative of our forced migration here," said Echo Hawk. "I think it followed us here as Indigenous people on our various Trails of Tears. It's our medicine and for us, it represents everlasting life."
Both artists hope the work will spark questions and a new understanding of their shared history.
The mural is set to be completed later this month and will be at the corner of North Cheyenne and 3rd Street in downtown Tulsa.
This report was produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations. Help support collaborative journalism by donating at the link at the top of this webpage.