The Trial, Tsistsistas Way

Artist: Gordon Yellowman, Sr.

The Trial depicts an actual case heard by the Cheyenne Council of Forty-Four, the traditional peacekeepers, in the 1860s after an aborted fetus was found near the village. To determine who had committed the crime, the Council required women of childbearing age to bare their breasts. The lactating woman was then identified as the mother. Tsistsistas is the language word Cheyennes use when speaking of their tribe. It honors their traditional culture and way of life during the time their territory spanned the Plains, from Montana to Texas.

This piece is an example of Cheyenne ledger art, reminiscent of the 19th Century works produced by Plains Indian artists who had few sources of paper beyond ledger books. Artist Gordon Yellowman incorporates modern hues, giving his work a more contemporary feel of artistic expression.

Yellowman initially became a part of tribal leadership at the age of sixteen when he was elected as a Peace Chief in 1973. He serves as one of the four Principal Chiefs of the Cheyenne tribe, a position he has held since 1995.

Art has always been a part of Yellowman’s life and as a child, he often received art supplies as Christmas gifts. He went on to study art at El Reno Junior College, Canadian Valley Vo-Tech, the University of Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State University. At the University of Oklahoma, he studied art with Mary Jo Watson and Edgar Heap of Birds, both highly respected Indian artists and professors who mentored and influenced him.

Many accounts of Cheyenne tribal history have been handed down through oral tradition, like the actual historical events illustrated in The Trial. That particular incident had not been formally documented. When Yellowman was commissioned to do a piece for the Oklahoma Judicial Center, he saw the perfect opportunity to share the Tsistsistas way of justice. Visual depictions of history have become a priority for the artist. “When we can preserve our stories through art, that is what saves our culture,” Yellowman said.

Much of Yellowman’s life revolves around preserving his heritage. He is an adjunct professor in the art department of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford. He was the first Cheyenne to be named as a Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Representative and also served as the National Historic Preservation Act Representative for the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribe. Through his work as a cultural advisor and consultant, he assists museums and federal agencies across the country and was recently featured on the television show, History Detectives.

In 2010, he was recognized as the Red Earth Festival Honored One in recognition of his great artistic talent and dedication to mentoring other artists. His work has appeared on book jackets, a postage stamp and as the State Highway Sign logo for the Cheyenne Heritage Trail. His work has also been featured at the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko, the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History and at the Mabee Greer Museum in Shawnee. He is currently designing a logo for the Field School of Texas Tech University.

Source: “The Extraordinary Ledger Art of Gordon Yellowman,” Distinctly Oklahoma, August 2011; Personal interview April 16, 2013.