Spencer Asah was the son of a Kiowa medicine man and as such he was well versed in tribal ceremonies and traditions. Asah was custodian of important tribal ceremonial items, including a Kiowa calendar. He was also an accomplished dancer and depicts that in many of his works.
Kiowa society differed greatly from the American dream pursued by most Oklahoma settlers in the early years of statehood. It is important to note that at this time, the main task of Indian Services was to teach Native Americans how to live in white society, to be farmers and ranchers, working a prescribed plot of land and paying taxes, not traveling hunters ranging over the Plains. This put artwork honoring Kiowa tradition and culture directly at odds with the Agency’s mission. Despite government edict, Mrs. Susie Peters, field matron of the Indian Service Agency in Anadarko, Oklahoma, took an interest in Asah’s artistic ability and encouraged him to continue painting Native art. She recognized his potential and arranged for his admission to St. Patrick’s Mission School.
St. Patrick’s was run by a Benedictine monk named Isidore Ricklin. Born in Alsace, France, Ricklin was described as an adventurous man who enjoyed life and valued art. Whether it was the influence of his native land or the sway of his faith, he respected the Kiowa culture and encouraged his students to preserve their heritage through painting. At St. Patrick’s, Asah was given the opportunity to pursue his passion for art.
Later, as one of the Kiowa Six, he studied with Oscar Jacobson at the University of Oklahoma. See page 130. Asah’s work was exhibited with the other Kiowa artists in exhibits at the University of Oklahoma and at the American Federation of Arts convention. In 1928, his work received international acclaim when exhibited in an art festival in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The following year, he painted murals in the Memorial Chapel at St. Patrick’s Mission in Anadarko.
Asah’s line drawings and paintings were meticulous in their replication of feathers and beadwork depicted in regalia. The buffalo was considered earth’s greatest gift to the Kiowa, providing food, shelter, clothing and weapons. Wearing the animal’s horns, as illustrated in Buffalo Priest, was an honor reserved for the respected medicine men of the tribe.
In 1937, after Monroe Tsatoke died, Asah completed the murals on the third floor of the Oklahoma Historical Society, now the Oklahoma Judicial Center. See page 153. In June 2011, Asah’s daughter, Ida Lura Asah Jones came to the Judicial Center to observe conservation work being done on the murals. She said the images were not like the subjects her father usually painted. “He didn’t paint Eastern figures.” Jones remembered watching her father paint murals of deer and buffalo for the gym at Fort Sill and later she helped him finish a mural in the student center of Hardin College in Wichita Falls, Texas.
Asah’s work is also included in the collections of the Museum of the American Indian in New York, as well as the Gilcrease Museum and Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Source: The Oklahoman, April 23, 1939; April 30, 1939; December 19, 1940; Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture; Jacobson House online resources jacobsonhouse.com; Jacobson, Oscar: Kiowa Indian Art, Nice, France: 1929; personal interview Ida Luria Asah Jones (daughter), June 2011.