Keeper of the art: Wichita’s Native American museum celebrates Indigenous art, culture

Keeper of the Plains lit at night
Keeper of the Plains, illuminated at night, was designed by Blackbear Bosin, an artist of Comanche and Kiowa descent.

Standing 30 feet above the confluence of the Big and Little Arkansas Rivers, the Keeper of the Plains may be the most recognizable symbol of Wichita. The 44-foot-tall steel figure of a Native American chief was the creation of a man’s love for art and his adopted hometown.

Blackbear Bosin, a Comanche (mother) and Kiowa (father), created the sculpture as a gift to the Kansas city in 1974 for the United States bicentennial in 1976. Born Francis Blackbear Bosin in Anadarko, Oklahoma, his Kiowa name was Tsate Kongia (Blackbear), he was a self-taught artist specializing in sculpting and painting.

Blackbear Bosin stands in front of his design of The Keeper of the Plains.
Blackbear Bosin standing in front of his sculpture.

Bosin’s work and story are shared at the Mid-America All-Indian Museum, with a variety of his paintings and sculptures displayed. Instead of attending the University of Oklahoma to study art, Bosin learned to cut sheet metal at Chilocco Indian Agricultural School near Ponca City, Oklahoma. He opted to learn a trade to support his young family, having married shortly after high school.

Refusing to forego his love for art, Bosin continued painting and selling his work door-to-door. After moving to Wichita to work in the airplane manufacturing industry, he continued selling art on weekends.

Storm Eagle, a painting showing a Native American standing in front of a laege black bird representing oncoming storm
Storm Eagle is one of the paintings by Bosin on display at the Mid-America All-Indian Museum.

While the museum can’t share information about every tribe, Bosin’s artwork anchors the story of walking in two worlds – Indigenous and non-Native.

Celebrating Indigenous culture

The Mid-America All-Indian Museum celebrates Indigenous art and culture through permanent and special exhibits, with about 3,000 artifacts, including jewelry, pottery and books. Exhibits are changed throughout the year.

The museum doesn’t restrict its art to Plains tribal nations. Some of the art highlights Pacific Northwest and Alaska Native pieces, such as a miniature sculpture of a goose created using whale ear wax and ivory.

Goose on a rock, made from whale ear wax and ivory.
Goose on a rock, made from whale ear wax and ivory.

Another exhibit features Haida dolls from the Pacific Northwest, created with beaded Orca, seal skin, fur and ivory.

Addressing cultural issues facing Indigenous Peoples, the museum posted frequent questions visitors have asked: “Aren’t all Indians one tribe?;” “Do all Indians have high cheek bones and brown skin?;” and, my personal favorite, “How do I get my Indian money?”

Racism and cultural appropriation are addressed through a small exhibit that simply conveys the message with examples such as a baseball cap with an offensive logo, booklets, dolls and product containers. Three posters on the wall define misappropriation and why it’s wrong.

Display of racist items, including Barbie dolls as Native Americans, boklets, product container and a baseball team cap.
Display of racist items, including Barbie dolls as Native Americans, booklet, product container and a baseball team cap.

Moving beyond the museum, the Mid-America All-Indian Museum celebrates Indigenous culture by hosting powwows and other social activities. Tribal flags representing dozens of the 570 federally-recognized tribes fly above the museum’s meeting space.

Following a visit to the Mid-America All-Indian Museum, enjoy a walk along the river to the Keeper of the Plains. With a small historical and cultural exhibit at its base, a visit to the Keeper offers more than just a view of a beautiful piece of public art.