Vanessa Paukeigope Morgan, Kiowa Regalia Maker and National Heritage Fellow, was 42 years old when interviewed by Robert Atkinson in 1994. This is his background to the interview: “As I arrived at her home, on the highest spot of the plains surrounding Anadarko, Oklahoma, I knew that with such a commanding view for so far in so many directions this must be a very special place. I also knew from speaking with her on the telephone, that Vanessa Morgan was a very kind, gentle, and generous woman. My sense was confirmed immediately as she greeted me with a warm, wonderful welcome. The land included many interesting structures that I soon learned more about as I was shown around. Inside their modest, inviting home, I was drawn to the many Indian artifacts, photographs and paintings adorning so much of the walls. I was in the presence of a woman whose spirit goes back many generations, who has done much to keep alive the love of her ancestors. Vanessa Morgan is a Kiowa artist, the granddaughter of Stephen Mopope, one of the group known as the “Five Kiowa Artists” who were the first Native American artists to receive international recognition for their work. She and her husband, Robert, have three children, Gabriel, Seth, and Summer. She has had hundreds of honors and prizes from her work, but her contributions to her community, to preserving the traditions she has inherited, come before her own career as an artist.
My name is Vanessa Paukeigope Morgan. I’m the oldest granddaughter of Stephen Mopope and Jeanette Berry. I was raised by my grandparents. I grew up right here on the hill. I’ve always been here. I have brothers and sisters, but none of my family are really interested in traditional ways. They all live in the larger cities and do all kinds of stuff, you know, that most people do. They don’t care for any of these ways. I don’t know, I just had such wonderful folks, I can’t imagine living a different way. I really can’t. I wear cloth dress and leggings every day, because that’s the way my grandmother dressed. For me personally, it gives me a great deal of comfort.
When you look around the room, my grandmother and grandfather may have passed away long ago, but they’re still here. I’ve hung on to their things, and there isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think about them, especially my grandmother. They were just wonderful people. I am so proud of them.
So, by living this way, by taking care of things the way that she would have, if she were here, I’m showing my love and my respect for her, and that old way of doing things. And it’s really a hard way to live. You know, you hear people say, “I love my Indian ways.” But words are the easiest thing to say. My grandmother told me, “It doesn’t mean anything if your actions don’t match your words.”
That means that, Kiowa way, you don’t brag on yourself. You always remain a humble person, because this earth that you touch, that’s where you came from. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, that’s where you’re going back to. You know, you treat people the way that you want to be treated. My grandmother used to say that however you treat people, that’s going to come back to you.
So, I’ve never tried to be fancy, because I’m not. I mean this is who I am. All of it came about because of my folks. They’re with me, they’re with me in my heart every day, and I’m thankful that God blessed me with such wonderful people.
I had a mother and father, but those old Kiowa’s, they took the oldest grandchild, and raised it, because according to Kiowa tradition, it’s just a way things are done, you love your children, but your grandchild, that’s a different love. And then, when that great grandchild comes, that’s an entirely different kind of love, because those are the people that are going to take your place, so it’s important to spend time with them.
My folks have been gone for 24 years, and you know, it’s just amazing to me how much things have changed, just small courtesies, small ways of doing things like when you see someone, whether you know them or not, you shake hands with them. It doesn’t cost you anything, what are they going to hurt? It’s a simple acknowledgment of a human being. I’m always amazed when I go places, people have an entirely different way of living than I do.
This land was my grandmother’s land, and it was always open to everyone.
My grandmother was the kind of woman who shared everything that she had. It goes back to the philosophy that the dollar bill doesn’t have a soul, not like a human being. That dollar bill will go from this person to that person, it never feels any love, it never feels and respect, it doesn’t have a life. But people see it, they touch it, they get greedy for more, and I suppose in their hunt for more money, they forget about the spirit of that human being, they forget about that compassion they should have, that respect they should have.
That’s not the way that I choose to live. I have enough. The only thing I worry about is something for my children, something more than just money. I’ve tried to live my life in a way that I could give my children a foundation to build a life on. God blessed each of us with a life. But in the end no one can tell you how to live your life.
Mamma can’t stand there forever, you need to make the choice, what are you going to do? What will you do? There are lots of people that’ve chosen to go off and they make a lot of money, drive big cars, and hang out in bars and stuff, and that’s fine, that’s their life. But for me, I’m much happier like this. Visiting with you, and you are listening to my words. But those aren’t really my words, they’re words that I grew up with.
My kids get tired of hearing me talk. I was the same way. I grew up in a time when the adults sat down and talked, and everyone listened. Now, they ask children to leave. Well, when I was growing up, you had to sit, you couldn’t move, you couldn’t walk around until everyone finished, until they got through talking.
I used to get mad at my grandmother for making me do that, because I’d look out the window and I’d see kids running around out there, and that’s where I wanted to be. But my grandmother wouldn’t let me. I used to get upset with her, but now I’d give anything to spend an hour with her, because there’s so many things that I don’t know.
I’m 48 years old. I don’t have anyone to ask. I have old people coming here to ask me, “How come we do this? Why did they do it that way?” I don’t know, but that’s the way my Grandma showed me.
You know, the missionaries were really so diligent in their efforts to stamp out our culture. They actually, did quite a good job. But There were people like my folks, who never quit. My folks had their rations withheld. They had their lease money withheld. But when you know something’s right, you stand up for it, you don’t let some one browbeat you into doing something that you know you’re not supposed to do.
This man that you see in the photograph down the hall, his name was Magoday. That was my grandpa Steve’s father. The Indian agent called him in with Indian police, and they were trying to make him give up his O-Ho-Mah ways. The agent, and a representative from the tribe went through a list and came up with about 200 people. They kept working on this list, trying to make these people give up their ways, and send their children to boarding school and go to church, you know, just kind of trying to mainstream them, assimilate them into this white culture. Well, my great grandfather wouldn’t do it. They called him in, and he said, “The only way that you can make me stop is to kill me.” And to this day, of all the societies that the Kiowa’s have ever had, O-Ho-Mah is the one society that never had to be revived. They went into hiding, and they had their ceremonies. Those are the kind of people that I come from.
It gives me so much comfort, you know, my grandmother used to say, “Someone has to be brave enough to stay home and tend the fire.” It’s pretty simple, isn’t it? Well, it sounds simple, but it isn’t. There are so many times that I really question, why am I doing this? And then I look at my babies and I know that’s why I’m doing this. I don’t know if they’re going to choose to live this way.
My daughter is already thinking about going to live in New York City, or Washington, D.C., and I really worry. Who’s going to take care of this after I’m gone? These are the same things my grandmother used to worry about.
My grandmother used to thump me in the head. She’d say, “You, I worry about.” I’d give anything to show her I’m the only one who’s stayed home. I’m the only one in my family who goes to Black Legs and O-Ho-Mah.
See that war bonnet there? That belongs to my oldest son, Gabriel. He’s one of the pipe dancers for the O-Ho-Mah lodge. My grandfather was a tail dancer. My great grandfather was a tail dancer, so it’s just generation after generation. From the time that my boys could walk, they danced at O-Ho-Mah. I have brothers, but, you know, they weren’t interested. So that whole responsibility fell on those two little boys.
My oldest boy is living in Montana right now. Sometimes you have to go away to figure out really and truly what’s important. All of his life, I wanted him to have braids, I wanted him to have his ears pierced, I wanted this, I wanted that for him. And he just always stiff-armed me, just held me at a distance, and would do it. But, after he came back from Haskell, here he came, we had our ears pierced, we had our hair grown long. He was all excited. It was just going to college with this campus full of Indians.
He came back one time, and we were sitting, just like you and I are, talking, and this came out of my oldest son’s mouth, he said, “You know, Mamma,” he said, “I’m really glad that I’m not a paper Indian.”
I said, “What the heck is a paper Indian?”
He said, “You know, Mamma, that’s the Indian who has a degree of blood from the agency and it shows that they’re Indian, but they don’t know anything about their people. They can’t speak, they don’t know how to behave when they come to the ceremonials, they stand back on the edge and look on, and their behavior is worse than some of the tourists.”
And I thought, you know, this is my hope. This is somebody who’s paid attention. Seth and Gabriel both have grown up with the Native American church. Sometimes I wonder if there is such a thing as events being preordained. Just looking around here, that painting over there on the wall, that’s a peyote map. And that painting there, that’s a Black Legs warrior.
The painting under it there is a little boy and a little girl on horseback, and you look over there to the left, there’s a cattle arbor. Then you can see mountains in the back and the tepees, right here in the foreground. I look at that painting, and right down here, you can see my cattle arbor, and in the back, you can see the mountains and the tepees.
There’s always a tepee up here. Like during Desert Storm, there was a tepee up. Did you watch any of that? I mean, you couldn’t get away from it, all the scud missiles, everything. It was blow by blow, every minute. Well, there’s so many mothers who had boys who were at Desert Storm, and sometimes it got so bad, the mothers would come up here. And it was, “I just need to get away, I need to pray.”
This isn’t a temple or sacred ground, but it’s just a place where everyone is welcome. And so the mothers came here. There were beds set up in the tepee, and it was for them. One lady came, she brought her sister, and they stayed all day, and we ate supper out there in the tepee. And I had a fire built, and we sat out there. And finally, I think it was just about this time, the sun was just getting ready to set, she decided to go home.
But, you know, this place, the land, the tepees, the earth lodge, it was all meant just for that purpose. We use the tepee to camp in, we use it to pray in, we use it if you want to spend the night, if you’d rather not sleep here in the house, you can sleep in one of the tepees. There’s always people coming and going here. If you need a place to stay, then you’re welcome. I realize that you can’t do that today in a lot of places, because there’s so much hatred and violence in America now. It’s just incredible. That’s why I worry about my kids.
This is definitely not the kind of world that my grandmother prayed for. that’s why it makes what she said so much more important. “Do you know why you are doing these things? Do you know that when you pray, when you put that cedar on the fire, that the smoke, is taking your prayers to heaven?”
When my oldest son was at Haskell, he was telling me that he was walking across campus and he said, “I saw these kids, and a couple of teachers, they were standing out front of this big open grassy area in front of the administration building, and they were all standing there.” And he said they had tepee poles down, but they were all clustered around the teachers. He said, “I couldn’t figure out what was going on.” So he walked up and he said, “Hey, what are you all doin’?”
And they said, “Oh, we’re tryin’ to set the tepee up, soon as we can figure out how to use this book.”
It was Gladys and Reginald Lobbins book on tepees. And they were using that to set their tepees up with. And Gabriel said, “God it felt bad.” Here was this campus full of Indians, and all 15 of these students with their teacher, were trying to read from this book by these white people, on how to set up an Indian tepee.
Anyway, he said they went in and he went ahead and set the tepee up, and put the cover on. When they came back, they said, “Who’d you get to help?”
He said, “It was just me. It only takes one person.”
They just couldn’t believe that, but that’s the way these kids have grown up, you know. I don’t know what the solution is. I know that I’m happy living like this, but I can’t tell my children, “This is best.”
Right now, we’re running into another problem. My children are incredibly special, they’re very gifted. I was not allowed to date. My marriage was arranged for me. My grandmother selected this man for my husband. And she was dying from cancer. And she said, “This man is going to be your husband.” I was never raised to know any different. I didn’t know you were supposed to date several different people before you selected, before you selected your mate. You know, so I mean I really grew up very, very different.
This young woman here, my daughter, she’s a very assertive and bold woman of the nineties. You’re to talk to her about arranged marriages? Uh uh. No. She won’t listen. You know, she just makes up her own mind, and I’m proud of her. I look at her and I wish her the best of luck in the world. She’s really a great person.
I think probably those beliefs and traditions were instilled into my grandparents through their whole life. Why give up something so precious? It seems to me that when you’re young, you don’t pay attention. As you get a little bit older, things that you took for granted suddenly become very very important. For instance, these beliefs, these things that I was taught, I heard them every day. And I used to get mad at my grandmom cause I’d say, “I’ve heard that story before, I know that. You talk about that all the time.”
But one day, we were sitting in the living room, and I knew she was sick, but when you’re young, you really don’t pay attention. And my grandmother said, “What’s going to happen to you after I’m gone?” She said, “I’m not saying that you’re ignorant, and I’m not saying that you’re stupid, but there are things that need to be taken care of. And I’m doing that now, but nobody lives forever. What’s going to happen to you?”
I looked around, we were just sitting like you and I are, and I was edging. I was sitting on this little footstool down by her feet, and I could not figure out who she was talking to. At the time, I did not realize my grandmother was dying from cancer.
We came up here to the house, and a window was broken, and the lawn was all grown up, and my grandmother at that point was in such poor health that she had to take two or three steps and then stop. She called it “catch my breath.” But she was so sick. Anyway, we were going to wash some of the bedclothes and stuff. And she was looking around, and she said, “This is what it’s going to look like when I’m gone.”
You know, the whole reason I’m talking to you is because I have children, and I’m going through some really hard health problems and somewhere, at some point, maybe my daughter will snap, and realize that I loved her and that I wanted to give her something. Something that my grandmother gave me. And so, by sitting and talking, maybe at some point, she’ll make her way to this place, she’ll be able to hear me.
There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think that wonderful old lady. But sometimes you grow up and everybody’s always in a hurry, especially right now, nobody has time to visit. In the rush, it seems like people forget to tell each other how important they are to each other. They forget to say things like, I love you.
My mother was part of what the Bureau of Indian Affairs called at that time the Relocation Program. They took Indians from the rural Indian community and sent them to Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, and tried to get them to take some job training and work, and live in the larger urban areas.
Well, my mother was sent to nursing school, and she was assigned to the Phoenix area office. They had a little satellite clinic in Sakatone, Arizona, and that’s where she was stationed. That’s where she met my father. My father was a Pima from Arizona. He used to ride when he was a young man. He’d got thrown, and he was in the hospital. That’s how he met my mother, she was his nurse.
They married, and I was born, and my grandmother came for me, by train. Before I left the hospital, my grandmother had already pierced my ears. I stayed with my Mom and them for a few days, but then my grandmother brought me back to Oklahoma, on the train with her. My Aunt DonnaJean, who was married to Lisatope, the painter, met my grandmother, with my grandfather at the train depot in Chickashay.
My grandpa used to tease me to death. He said my aunt was so excited, they could hardly wait for my grandmother to get down on the platform so they could see me. My aunt lifted up the blanket and my grandfather said I looked like a piece of dark chocolate with big eyes. He said I had the biggest eyes.
We were practically the only ones in that train station, and my grandpa looked around, and he said, “You were just so tiny, so pretty, but you had this big voice, and you made this one noise, “UHHHHH.” It just kind of echoed all through the train station. My grandfather used to tease me about that. My folks were really great people, I really enjoyed them.
My grandfather could tell stories, he was a great storyteller, and I just grew up around old people. Even today I think my youngest friend is 67. It’s just that you’re drawn to people who have the same interests as you. I’m 41, but I don’t know many people that like to do the things that I do, except for the older people. So those are the people that I chum around with.
I love to dance. That’s what I remember the best from my childhood. I remember going to the Osage war dances. My grandmother would sew all winter, and we would go to Grayhorse to this certain family. They had people that they would send to their house to let them know that my grandmother was there. And before we even made it to the dance ground, her stuff would be sold.
My grandfather would sing at the dances. That’s something special. Oh, he was so fancy. I always thought my grandpa was handsome, you know. He would wear his hat at a rakish angle. Just looking at him, you knew that he was really someone special. And he was funny. Oh, could he tell stories.
We would finish dancing and we would come home and we would eat. We’d sit out, it’d be two, three o’clock in the morning, and we’d be sitting there at the dining table, just enjoying ourselves, just visiting. It was like a sharing fellowship.
School is a painful memory for me. I hated school. I had to go to school at Lawton High. I was the only brown face in my class. My graduating class was like 375. I just couldn’t wait until school ended. Then we’d come here. My grandmother and me used to have a little house that’s down there where there’s an old elm tree. She had a little tiny little frame house. We’d come here on weekends, and on spring break, every chance we got. My mother and father’s home was in Lawton, but this was home.
But my grandmother came to everything that she could. We’d go to the football games. Growing up, it was really different, because, in high school especially, when you’re a teenager, you want to blend in. I was too odd. I mean, I stuck out like a sore thumb, ‘cause I had braids, and I wore earrings.
To me that was dressing up. I used to wear leggings to class. I just really stuck out. But that’s who I was. I guess, I was too hard-headed to try to blend, anyway. But I could not wait to get out of high school.
Well, I got my high school diploma, but I never went for a college degree. By then, my grandmother was really getting sick. But my grandmother really wanted to do something special for me after graduation. She said, “For your graduation present, we’re going to go to Crow Fair in Montana.”
“Oh,” I thought, “Crow Fair in August.” I was all excited.
I made it through high school graduation, and I had applied to Haskell, where my grandmother had always wanted to go. Then she got real sick. This was the Fourth of July.
We were camped down at Nelson Big Bow’s Dance, north of Lawton. My little brother was head dancer for the rabbits. My grandfather fixed up a hat for him so he wouldn’t have to hold his fingers up to the side of his head. My grandmother worked hard to have nice clothes for him, and she fixed me up with new dresses and everything, too.
Oh, goodness, that was the best dance. I won first place in the buckskin contest. And the singing was good, everything was good. At the time, I didn’t realize how sick she was. The doctor had wanted to hospitalize her. She told him, “No, I have, I have something important to do, but I promise I’ll come in Monday morning.”
So, you know, we struck camp early Monday morning, and we just brought our stuff and dropped it off here, and then we went to the doctors. Then they hospitalized her. And then she went quick. It seemed like after we signed the admission papers, she went up in the wheelchair, and already, she was leaning over to one side. She just looked tired. She kept saying, “I’m tired.” She slipped into a coma and passed away. So I never made it to Crow Fair.
I guess if you sum everything up right now, I know my grandfather loved me, and always spent time with me, but it was just the sheer emotional and spiritual strength of this one woman. She was the most incredible woman I’ve ever known.
I’ll laugh sometimes, because when I think about my grandmother and her cousins, they were, I don’t know what to call them but women of quality. Oh, they were incredible, not like the Indian women you see in the movies. They just look so pitiful.
But my grandmother, it was funny, in the summertime, the lease man would bring cattle up here, he’d bring three of them. There was a little holding pen right there by the chicken coop. Her cousins would come, and after the lease man unloaded the cows, well, my grand-mother would pick out which one was going to be butchered first. These little old ladies, with my grandmother’d take a sledge hammer and pop that animal right in the head and down it would go. These little women just they looked so frail, but they were on that animal. It was butchered in nothing flat.
My grandmother’d never throw away anything. She used everything. She stretched out the hide, and she’d use it for rawhide. The whole animal was butchered. That’s what people would eat when they came up. She would take part of the meat and distribute it to the camp. There would be camps set up all the way from this metal fence, all the way back that way toward the west.
My folks were so unselfish. And for that I really appreciate them. My grandmother used to say “Kindness, that’s what people remember. Kindness has a long life.” And I’ve really found that to be true. I’ve always tried to treat people just the way that I want to be treated. And I try to live my life and take care of things that were special to my grandparents.
Because, you know, look around me, I have a house, I have land. I didn’t pay for it, my grandmother provided for me.
I remember being a little girl, walking up to that metal fence with her, I can tell you too, what she had on. She had on a turquoise dress and a belt like the dress that I’m wearing. We were walking up toward the metal fence and she said, “The land from the west, to that boundary fence, that’s your sisters’. And from here to this east boundary,” she said, “that’s yours.”
And I was looking at it, and to me it just looked like it went on forever.
I learned my craft work from my grandmother. Oh, I used to gripe. I was a child. She began teaching her art to my sisters and I when I was eleven. She would make me work on medallions. She started me out on edge work, just edging for her. It was time consuming.
She would be making these bigger pieces, medallions and necklaces and stuff. She’d make the whole dress, the crown, the necklace, the dress, the leggings, the purse, the bags that hang on the sides. She’d sew the whole outfit for $200.
Now, it’s crazy, some of the prices they get. I hear different people talk. One person says, “Well, I don’t touch a dress for less than $10,000.” And this other person says they get $7000, and somebody else says they get $5000. I kind of scratch my head, you know, I’ll sell a dress for $1500, the dress and the leggings. Because the people I’m sewing for are people who are like me. We don’t have money, you know. I wasn’t put on this earth to get rich on my own people. I won’t do that. Other people can, but my purpose is to dress little girls the right way. I know what it feels like, I have a girl.
I enjoy the bead work, I enjoy talking about it. I’m not saying I’m the best, and I’m not saying I’m the only one. That’d be foolish. There’s too much to know. One person by themselves can’t know everything. But what I know, combined with what Seth knows, combined with what my Aunt Donna knows, and my Uncle Gus knows, there you have an idea of how full and how beautiful the overall broad picture is of Kiowa culture. It isn’t written down.
Sometimes, Kiowa’s have grown up, and they know nothing about their own culture. Their teacher is limited to a book written by Alice Mariott or Doctor Boyd. That’s the extent of their Kiowa teachings. The books are interesting, but the information is incomplete.
My work is representative of traditional Southern Plains material culture. I make bowcase and quiver sets, shields, lances, saddles, moccasins, men’s shirts and leggings, dolls, cradleboards, women’s dresses and leggings, headdresses, and other items. I use buckskin, beads, silver cones, rawhide, earth pigments and a variety of animal skins and other supplies to complete each piece. The most important lesson that my grandmother taught me was: “Watch me… Pay attention… Know why you are doing things a certain way. I won’t be here forever.”
Keeping the traditions that my grandmother taught me gives me an opportunity to introduce my Kiowa people and their heritage at its best to the world. It gives me a chance to honor my grandmother and her teachers before her, before my time began.
My abilities as a traditional woman are because of my grandparents. The way that my family and I live is a result of their love and effort. I know of know other way to show the love and respect that I have for Stephen Mopope and Jeanette Berry, my grandparents, than to continue to do the work that I am presently doing. My work is not an end in itself. It is simply a perpetuation of the Kiowa people and their culture for the unborn generations after me.
Have you ever noticed what happens when you have this big, beautiful tree, and you chop away at the roots? This tree that gives you shade, this tree that gives you wood for fire, this tree that gives shelter to birds whose singing you enjoy? This tree will die with those roots cut away.
That’s what’s happening here, you know, the roots have been cut. You wouldn’t believe how many people have come up here, and they mean well, and they tell me, “You know, you’re good at what you do, but you’re not promoting yourself the right way. If you let me, I could really make you famous. You need to have a manager.”
I have to be polite, and I listen to them, but I have no desire to be rich. I have no desire to be famous. The thing that I worry about are my lights being on. I worry that I have groceries for my babies. They’re 16 and 17 years old, but they’re still my babies.
Sometimes I really wonder if I’ve made the right choice. I’m gonna tell you something. I really appreciate you coming. A friend of mine works with the cylinder project up in Washington D.C., and she sent me some recordings. I got to hear my great grandmother, the one I’m named after, Paukeigope. I got to hear her voice. I also got to hear this other lady, Mary Buffalo. And on these wax cylinders, my grandmother was singing with my great grandmother. Oh, they had pretty voices.
But at one point, Mary Buffalo was translating, and in Kiowa she says, “We like doing this,” she said, “In this way, we’re saving something, and maybe one day, some young Kiowas are going to come looking, and we’ll be here waiting.”
In that way, what I’m doing right here with you, is similar to the purpose that Mary Buffalo and them had. That was done, I think, in like 1906.
But I really worry, especially for my girl. Because there are so many things in this world. There are things that men do, and there are things that women do. And there really isn’t a blending. I mean, it comes together, but the roles are completely separate.
My sons have people that will help them. But I really worry about my girl, especially. You can talk and you can talk, but I think the best way to compare it, is to a picture hanging on the wall. Every day you see that picture. And gradually, you notice it less and less. You sit and you eat with your grandmother and all of a sudden, they’re gone, their time has ended. And now, after the funeral, everybody’s coming in and they’re saying, “Now, who’s this in this picture?” And everybody looks up at the picture, “You know, I don’t know who that is, but she really liked that picture.”
Well, my life in a lot of ways is like that. Because I keep talking to my girl, and I have to compete with Marky Mark and Cindy Crawford and Madonna, and Jade, you know. Those are the people that my girl wants to listen to.
I’m just here, talking and talking and talking, and I’ve no idea if that girl’s going to catch anything that I’ve said. But maybe someday she’ll make her way, and she’ll be able to hear something.
My grandmother used to say that if you give up, everything’s lost. But boy, there are times when I could just give up. It’s so hard. But then, I get up and I walk by the hall and I see all those old photographs and those paintings, and I see those babies and I think, “No, nothing can happen to me right now, I’ve got too much to do.” And I really do. I have grand- babies I’d like to see.