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Tichkematse. Photo by T.W. Smillie. Photo Lot 24. Neg. 73-9466

Tichkematse. Photo by T.W. Smillie. Photo Lot 24. Neg. 73-9466

Tichkematse demonstrating Plains sign language for Frank Hamilton Cushing.

Tichkematse demonstrating Plains sign language for Frank Hamilton Cushing.  The wig he is wearing for this photograph was apparently intended to make Tichkematse look "authentic."  Photo Lot 24. Neg. 46,601.

Drawing by Tichkematse Drawing by Tichkematse Drawing by Tichkematse Drawing by Tichkematse

Four drawings by Tichkematse, ink and watercolor on paper, 1878-1881. MS 290,844. Click on images to view an enlargement.

A fascinating early employee of the Smithsonian Institution was Tichkematse (Squint Eyes), a Cheyenne Indian who worked for the institution in a variety of capacities between 1879 and 1881.

Raised to a life based on buffalo hunting, Tichkematse was among a group of southern Plains warriors who were held as prisoners of war by the United States government from 1875-1878. While imprisoned, he learned to speak English and to read and write. Upon release he attended school at the Hampton Institute in Virginia for about a year before coming to the Smithsonian. There he was trained in the preparation of bird and mammal specimens for study and display. He proved so able a naturalist that he was detailed to accompany a government expedition traveling the remote Florida waterways to counsel with members of the Seminole tribe. Tichkematse used this opportunity to collect bird specimens for the museum.

Tichkematse also shared knowledge of his own culture with the Smithsonian staff and visiting public. When he was not busy guiding visitors through the galleries and interpreting the Indian exhibits, he worked with anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing who was studying Indian sign language. There were so many different languages spoken on the Plains that the Indians of the area had developed a shared language based on gesture to facilitate communication between people of different tribes. Cushing's notes of his work with Tichkematse are preserved in the National Anthropological Archives of the National Museum of Natural History. During  his time at the Smithsonian, he also produced drawings illustrating his old life on the Plains, full of buffalo hunts and battles as well as everyday camp life.

In 1880 he returned to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Reservation in what is now Oklahoma, but he continued his affiliation with the Smithsonian. He was active in collecting bird and mammal specimens as well as craft items acquired from Cheyenne friends and relatives, which he shipped to the museum.

In 1881 Frank Cushing recruited Tichkematse to join an expedition he was mounting to locate and acquire information about the language and customs of the Havasupai Indians who lived deep in the Grand Canyon. He went along on that rough desert journey as companion and assistant, and continued to assist Cushing during his subsequent months at the Pueblo of Zuni.

Tichkematse's direct association with the Smithsonian ended in 1881, but it was not the last that he was heard of there. In 1991 the National Anthropological Archives acquired a set of drawings that Tichkematse had produced in 1887 while he was enlisted with the Army as a scout at Ft. Supply, Indian Territory.

The drawings represent a series of vignettes of a hunting party arranged for Major John Dunlop who was visiting a fellow officer at Ft. Supply. The drawings show the officers as well as Tichkematse and several of the other scouts in their military uniforms hunting a wide variety of animals.

Hunting scene by Tichkematse Hunting scene by Tichkematse

Four hunting scenes. Ink and watercolor on paper, 1887. MS 7500.

Hunting scene by Tichkematse Hunting scene by Tichkematse


For additional information on Tichkematse, see Plains Indian Art from Fort Marion by Karen Daniels Petersen (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK 1971). For further information on the Cheyenne scouts and their artwork, see "Artists in Blue: the Indian Scouts of Fort Reno and Fort Supply," by Candace S. Greene (American Indian Art Magazine, Winter 1992, pp.50-57).

Written by Candace S. Greene, designed by Robert Leopold. The initial photograph of Tichkematse is from a glass slide in the Hampton Institute Library. Courtesy of Hampton University Archives.

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