Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote: Massalena Ahtone, American Indian Exposition, 1940

Today we welcome a guest post from Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote, author of Crafting an Indigenous Nation:  Kiowa Expressive Culture in the Progressive Era, just published by UNC Press.

In this in-depth interdisciplinary study, Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote reveals how Kiowa people drew on the tribe’s rich history of expressive culture to assert its identity at a time of profound challenge. Examining traditional forms such as beadwork, metalwork, painting, and dance, Tone-Pah-Hote argues that their creation and exchange were as significant to the expression of Indigenous identity and sovereignty as formal political engagement and policymaking. These cultural forms, she argues, were sites of contestation as well as affirmation, as Kiowa people used them to confront external pressures, express national identity, and wrestle with changing gender roles and representations.

Crafting an Indigenous Nation is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Cover Story:  Massalena Ahtone, American Indian Exposition, 1940

June 2006.  I am sitting at a long table at the Oklahoma Historical Society just behind a shelf packed with thick binders of photographs of American Indians in Oklahoma.  As I flip through the “A” binder of Kiowa photographs, I saw the picture labeled “Massalena Ahtone, later Mrs. Tone-Pah-Hote.” She stares back at me.  I have seen that look before. But, in my memory, the woman is elderly, wears maroon and brown dresses, knee high stockings, and hair pinned in a bun.  I sent a copy of it to my father, Preston.

“Is this really Grandma?”

The woman in the photo the one with stare I recognized was, in fact, his mother.

Her English name was Massalena Ahtone.  She was born in 1912 to Sam Ahtone and Tah-do, a beadwork artist.  By the time she posed for the photograph, she had married my grandfather, Murray Tone-Pah-Hote, and they had three children, including my father.  She possessed a sharp wit and sternness in equal measure.  Grandma posed for this photograph in 1940 at the American Indian Exposition held each year in Anadarko, Oklahoma, a small town sixty miles southwest of Oklahoma, City.  The exposition run by local Native people combined a county fair feel with intertribal dancing, pageants, a parade, and an all-Indian baseball tournament.  Kiowa men and women, like my grandmother, played major roles in the event displaying livestock, painting, and beadwork. It became a place where Kiowa people asserted their own unique identities in a deeply intertribal and intercultural space.

Pierre Tartoue took my grandmother’s photograph.  He earned a reputation for his romantic photographs of Native people that often placed them in the past tense.  This photograph possesses these qualities.  Grandma sits on a striped blanket dressed in full regalia.  Tipis fade into the background.  Nothing tells the casual viewer that he took the photo in 1940.  In fact, if I hadn’t known better I would have said 1880.  The visual cues in the photo give a sense of timelessness that has been a hallmark of popular representations of American Indians.  They are part of the sepia toned past, not part of the present.

However, if we look beyond Tartoue’s perspective and think about why Massalena Ahtone might allow herself to be photographed, the photo takes on a different meaning.  For Grandma, posing for a photograph may have been fun.  It also highlighted her clothing—a beaded headband, buckskin dress, and German silver belt complete with beaded bag and drop.  By 1940, “Indian clothes” were becoming more associated with powwows and community events.  A person’s relatives often took responsibility for making or buying dance regalia.  Grandma’s portrait is also a portrait of the bead worker’s skills in creating clothing and designing beadwork, major community art forms. In this case, the naturalistic floral designs on the skirt and bodice of the dress are important because they were becoming “classic” Kiowa beadwork designs when Tartoue shot this photo. Some women, such as Tah-do, and others used them before mid-century.  Artists continued to innovate on leaf patterns as each gave her (and sometimes his) own take on the motif and its execution. Those in the know would be able to see Grandma’s dress at the fair and know right away that she was Kiowa.  A very knowledgeable viewer could identify the artist too.  This may seem esoteric, but it is no different than how lovers of French Impressionism can tell the difference between a Matisse and a Monet.

Photographs, dance regalia, and events like the American Indian Exposition played important roles in the cultural and political lives of Kiowa men and women.  They became sites where Kiowas have and continue to express contemporary Kiowa identities.  For me, photographs like this one, also become portals to understanding the past and remembering relatives and ancestors who carried on our life ways though often in new ways or in new events, such as the American Indian Exposition. The photograph evokes so many layers of family and community history that it became a touchstone for me as I wrote Crafting an Indigenous Nation:  Kiowa Expressive Culture in the Progressive Era.  The book argues that the Kiowa, an American Indian nation in Oklahoma created, art, dance, and public representations of themselves that highlighted layers of changing, modern Kiowa identities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Gender and representation form major themes of the book, and the cover photograph highlights these themes.


Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote (Kiowa) is assistant professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.