Every Oklahoman is familiar with Allan Houser’s sculpture, even if they don’t know his name. A picture of Sacred Rain Arrow is on our license plate. As Long as the Waters Flow is in the south plaza our state capitol grounds. He has pieces in our airport, in several of our art museums and on the campus of Oklahoma University in Norman.
The rest of world also knows Houser’s art. His work is included in the permanent collections of over 70 museums across the United States, Europe and the Far East. His career spanned six decades, and his influence can be seen in contemporary, modern sculpture and graphic art. Among his other honors, Allan Houser was the first Native American to receive the National Medal of Arts.
Pretty impressive for the child of two people who spent their early lives in prison.
Houser’s father, Sam, was Geronimo’s first cousin. He was a very young man when the Apache wars ended. In 1886, members of his tribe—Chiricahua Warm Springs Apaches—were loaded into cattle cars and shipped from the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona to the swampy lands of the American southeast. Sam was among the women and children jailed at the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida. Allan’s mother, Blossom, was born in the prison camp at the Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama where surviving members of the tribe were sent in 1887.
About 300 captive Chiricahuas were eventually sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma where they were held for another 23 years. Allan was the first member of his family born out of captivity shortly after the Apaches were released in 1914.
His birth name wasn’t Houser. Back then it was Haozous (loosely translated: the sound of going away). If Allan Houser were a protagonist in a magic realism novel we’d call that symbolism.
When the Apaches were released from Ft. Sill, most of them went to the Mescalero reservation in New Mexico. Eighty-one adults, including Sam and Blossom Haozous accepted land allotments around Apache and Lawton Oklahoma.
It seemed Allan Houser was destined to become an Oklahoma farmer during one of the worst droughts of the 20th century. But in 1934 he noticed a magazine ad for an art school in Santa Fe (The Dorothy Dunn School) and applied. Allan excelled at drawing and painting and became the school’s most famous student. By 1939 his work was exhibited
in San Francisco, Washington D. C., and Chicago.
In 1947 Haskell Institute in Lawrence Kansas solicited applicants to do a commissioned marble sculpture honoring former students who died in WWII. Even though he had never done a full size sculpture before and had never worked in marble, Allan managed to persuade the jury to give him the commission.
Comrade in Mourning was the result. It became the iconic Native American Sculpture of its day and launched Allan Houser’s career.
Native America always plays an important role in my fiction (Owl Dreams,
Messages, Southwest Gothic Tales). That makes me a natural fan of Allan Houser. His life would fit seamlessly between the covers of a magic realism novel—A member of a generationally imprisoned minority becomes a world famous artist. In Houser’s case the story is magic but it’s also true.
Allan Houser’s art can be found in collections all over the world, and starting May 1. 2014, some selected works will be exhibited on the roof of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Everyone who can should go and see it.