Peyote Ceremonial Tepee

Artist: Carl Sweezy

Carl Sweezy’s given name was Wattan, but he adopted the name Sweezy after his oldest brother began attending the Mennonite Mission School in Halstead, Kansas. Sweezy was the name of the railway agent there and all the children in his family were given that surname. In his memoir, Sweezy said he never knew the date of his birth because his parents “knew nothing about dates and had no way of recording them.” Most of the Arapaho tribe were still living in tipis at the time.

Sweezy’s mother died when he was very young and his father was a member of the Indian Police, who lived separately from the main tribe. This meant young Sweezy was reared primarily by Mennonite missionaries. He went to the Mennonite boarding school in Halstead and learned to farm and tend livestock. He returned to the Reservation at age 14, with baseball gear and a set of watercolor paints. “I had been trying to draw ever since I was a little fellow, and a woman at the Agency had showed me how to use watercolors,” he shared in his memoir.

Soon after, anthropologist James Mooney arrived to study the customs and traditions of the Cheyenne and Arapaho. He employed Sweezy to paint the trappings of Native life. Mooney urged his young employee to be strictly accurate with color, design and detail. During the months Mooney stayed on the reservation, Sweezy made dozens of paintings ranging from shields and war bonnets to baby carriers and moccasins. “Mr. Mooney was the only art teacher I ever had. When he left Darlington at the end of that stay he gave me some advice: Keep on painting, and don’t paint rocks and trees and things that aren’t there. Just paint Indian. So I am still painting, and painting Indian. It is the only way I know. I call it the Mooney way.” When Mooney returned to the Smithsonian Institute, he took with him a large collection of Sweezy’s first paintings.

Sweezy later toured the country with an all-Indian baseball team. When they stopped in Portland in 1905, Sweezy visited the Lewis and Clark Exposition where he recognized many of his unsigned paintings on display in a Smithsonian exhibit.

After leaving the baseball team, Sweezy worked as a farmer and a dairyman in western Oklahoma. After the death of his wife, Hattie, in 1944, Sweezy spent much of his time in Oklahoma City and was a frequent visitor to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Minutes of board meetings reflect him personally presenting several paintings to the Society. Sweezy described the subjects and themes of many of his paintings in interviews with Althea Bass. Her book of those conversations, The Arapaho Way: A Memoir of an Indian Boyhood was published in 1966.

A note on usage: Peyote Ceremonial Tepee was the published name given to this painting when it was donated to the Oklahoma Historical Society and appears in The Chronicles of Oklahoma with that title. However, current scholars and Native language experts commonly use the spelling tipi. Likewise, buffalo is the term Sweezy used in his memoir to describe the American bison.