It’s not often that you encounter an attraction connected to your family when you travel, but that’s what happened when we visited Oklahoma City. A mural, based on a poem by my eldest brother, John, was the basis for a mural featuring his likeness, as well as other Native Americans.
John’s poem “See the Woman” inspired the mural “Strength of a Woman.” As you read the poem, you follow the life of a woman from her youth to her role as an elder. The mural is painted along the wall of an underpass near the entrance to the Bricktown retail district, located a short walk from the city’s National Basketball Association arena and botanical garden. It’s seen by thousands on an almost daily basis.
The mural – about 120 feet long – was a joint venture between two Native American artists, J. NiCole Hatfield and Steven Grounds. With Oklahoma home to about 40 tribes, Hatfield said she believed the mural was a special opportunity to tell the Native American story.
“I wanted to be able to represent our native people in a good way and not have a non-native trying to tell our story,” Hatfield said. “I didn’t want to see another whimsical stoic headdress Indian and teepee. I wanted to paint in your face portraits, that will hopefully pull some kind of emotion out of you and ask questions about who these people are and what this poem is about.”
The faces of the people on the mural represent people from the past and present. People seem to appreciate the artwork and the story it tells, Hatfield said.
“When we were working on it thousands of people would come by and give good feedback on it,” she said. “They took time to read the poem and ask questions about who these people were and what tribes were being represented, that made me feel really good.”
John left home as a teen when I was a toddler, so I saw him a handful of times over the years. But, each time was a special moment. John (Johnny to his siblings) was a national leader on Native American issues. He first became involved with Native American causes publicly during the occupation of Alcatraz Island in the late 1960s. He took over as the national chairman of the American Indian Movement following the Wounded Knee reservation occupation in the mid-1970s. He served as chairman for several years.
Known for his charisma and eloquent speaking, John moved AIM’s message to work with other movements, such as nuclear energy opposition. He developed relationships with celebrities, including musician Jackson Browne. Following the deaths of his wife, Tina, and children in a suspicious house fire, he eventually turned to poetry to help overcome his grief. That would lead to a career in music as a spoken word artist. His band – Bad Dog – was popular among certain circles and they traveled the world.
He later acted in movies and television, with his biggest role being the main suspect in “Thunderheart,” which also starred the late Sam Shepard and Val Kilmer. My favorite movie of his was “Powwow Highway.”
The University of Nebraska at Omaha created a lecture series named after him. Adam Beach, a respected Native American actor and activist, is scheduled to be the speaker at the Feb. 16 event.
So, seeing the mural in Oklahoma City was a special moment for me. Here, my brother’s face was painted on a mural that will stand for at least 10 years. Some people walking by will recognize him, some won’t. But, most people will stop and read the poem. His legacy is set, but knowing that one other person may appreciate his words sends a wonderful feeling to my heart.
I – and I believe our entire family – appreciate the loving message that Hatfield and Grounds created for not only the world, but for the Trudell family. Though, Hatfield said she’s grateful to the family.
“(I) just want to say Ura (Thank you) to the Trudell family for allowing us to pay tribute to John,” she said. “Such an honor!”
“Strength of the Woman” is one of two murals along Sheridan Avenue. “Earth to Sky” is located across the street. Artists Chad Earles and Rhiana Deck created the mural that features red clay coils featuring figures made from blue feathers.
For more information on the “Strength of the Woman” mural, please visit www.travelok.com.