Earnest Spybuck was a member of the Thawekila division of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe. His love of art began early. His teacher Harriet Gilstrap recalled in her memoirs that “He refused to learn but would sit all day long and draw or paint.” Spybuck married at 19 and lived on his allotment of farmland. In the 1910s, he met anthropologist Mark Raymond Harrington who was doing fieldwork for the Museum of the American Indian in New York under the direction of George G. Heye. Harrington was impressed with Spybuck’s artistic ability, particularly that the “detail of costume and equipment [were] unusually accurate.”
As an anthropologist, Harrington collected more than art. He was looking for clothing, tools and information. Harrington paid Spybuck not only for paintings, but also for stories of Shawnee tradition and culture.
As such, nearly all the paintings acquired by Harrington for the American Indian Museum depict Native ceremonies and gatherings. However, Harrington noted that Spybuck’s favorite subjects were cowboys, cattle and range scenes, as shown in the piece displayed at the Oklahoma Judicial Center. Note the intricate leatherwork on the saddle and the embroidery of the cowboys’ gloves.
Spybuck’s paintings can also be seen in the Gilcrease Museum, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of the American Indian in New York. Cowboys is on permanent loan from the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Source: Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture; “Memoirs of a Pioneer Teacher,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma, “The Paintings of Earnest Spybuck,” Shawnee Home Life.