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.
Bison Hunter, Arapaho – Sweezy reported that all the buffalo had gone from their Reservation by the time he was born, but the animal had been so crucial to Arapaho existence that it remained an iconic image for the tribe. “For hundreds of years we had gone on a long hunt twice a year, whenever our scouts had come in to report that buffalo were plenty out on the Plains; we had held our buffalo dance before we left, and had set out with our best bows and arrows…” “As long as the buffalo roamed the plains, it supplied us with nearly everything we needed. That animal had been given to us in the beginning of things, and we had learned then how many uses it had for us…its hide made our lodge coverings, robes for our beds and for clothing, and shields and parfleches; its paunch made pails and bowls; its tail and hooves made ornaments; its horns made spoons and tools; its sinews made stout cords; its flesh and fat and organs, its blood and even the marrow of its bones made our food.”
Arapaho War Dancer –Only warriors who had earned the right could wear feathered headdresses. Sweezy described these as “rows of eagle feathers tipped at the end with a little tassel of dyed horsehair, it was a fine piece of handiwork.”
Peyote Ceremonial Tepee – The Peyote ceremony was practiced by male members of the Native American Church, who traditionally wore red blankets and carried black feather fans. The gathering begins at night in a tipi with a crescent-shaped altar where peyote, or mescal, buttons are placed. After consuming the peyote, participants might receive a vision – if they had properly prepared through fasting and meditation. The head priest would lead the participants in song during the ceremony. Sweezy believed the presence of scissor-tail fly-catcher feathers could enhance the ceremony. “The singing takes on great power and the whole lodge is filled with a humming sound.” Those who joined in the ceremony were fulfilling a vow or looking for improvement in their mind or health. “When the service ends at sunrise, and the fast is broken with the water and the food that the women bring, those who have taken part face the day and the world before them with a new sense of beauty and hope and goodness in their hearts.” Oklahoma Historical Society minutes indicate this painting was originally donated by Mrs. J. Garfield Buell in 1943. Buell practiced law in Muskogee from 1903 to 1912 and was later successful in the oil industry in Tulsa. All four of these pieces are on permanent loan from the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Displayed with the Peyote Ceremonial Tepee is a grindstone found by Jack McLemore on his farm near what is now Colony, Oklahoma. In designating the site as a National Historic Landmark, archeologists describe the area as having been a small village of the Plains agricultural complex, dating back to A.D. 1000. This area was included in the Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation at the time of Sweezy’s birth. The grindstone sits on a table that belonged to Justice Yvonne Kauger’s great-grandfather, Fred Kauger, a German from Russia, who settled in Colony before statehood.
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.
Source: Oklahoma Historical Society Board Minutes, October 28, 1943; Oklahoma Historical Society Board Minutes, October 26, 1950; Bass, Althea, The Arapaho Way: A Memoir of Indian Boyhood, C.N. Potter, 1966; “White Woman at Peyote Ceremony,” The Oklahoman, September 15, 1968; “Indian Art Showcased in Gallery,” The Oklahoman, December 14, 1986; “Halstead Indian Industrial School,” Mennonite Life, June 1987; “Every Beginning is Hard: Darlington Mennonite Mission, 1880-1902,” Mennonite Life, June 2006; Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture; National Historic Landmarks Program, National Park Service tps.cr.nps.gov accessed April 18, 2013.