Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Richard Ray Whitman

By Jennifer C. Vigil

Yuchi and Creek painter, photographer, poet, actor and filmmaker Richard Ray Whitman was born May 14, 1949 in Claremore, Oklahoma. He graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 1970 and studied at the California Institute of the Arts in 1972. His participation in the 1973 People’s Struggle at Wounded Knee had a profound impact, galvanizing his commitment to his role as an artist and a tribal citizen. His activism resulted in numerous artist residencies in public and alternative schools from the late 1980s through the 1990s. As an artist-in-residence with the Oklahoma Arts Council he worked with Oklahoma City’s Native American Center’s youth-at-risk program. Whitman has also worked with youth offenders, teaching rehabilitative arts therapy in state correctional institutions.[1] In 1987, he was honored with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award for his human rights and social justice commitments. Whitman’s extensive film credits, impressive exhibition history (including Continuum 12 at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation in 2004 and La Biennale di Venezia in 2001) and critical acclaim are evidence of his leadership and centrality to the field.

Whitman’s 1970’s – 1980’s photographic series, Street Chiefs, documents homeless urban Native people in Oklahoma. The 1952 Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Employment Assistance Program urged thousands of Native people to relocate to urban areas where presumably jobs and housing awaited. The BIA’s objectives were for participants to integrate into mainstream American culture and to abandon their traditional Native ways. While approximately 35,000 Native people relocated, by 1960, a third returned to the reservations. Many that remained failed to find the “success” promised, lacked the community safety net reservations and tribal culture afforded and found themselves homeless and destitute in their new urban homes. Whitman’s portraits documenting the program’s legacy (homelessness) speak not just to the realities of urban Native people, but illustrate the long and ongoing displacement of Indigenous people upon which America was built (specifically the removal of tribes from the southeast to Oklahoma).  Buy Oklahoma (1986) juxtaposes the “street chief” (a homeless Native person in the foreground) with the romanticized billboard image of a chief wearing a headdress alongside a cowboy that urges people to “buy Oklahoma.” Whitman’s image addresses the irony of Native Americans being used for tourism and marketing without gaining any financial rewards.

Whitman employs various strategies and incorporates multiple media to address issues of identity (personal and tribal), sovereignty, survival (personal and cultural), Indian removal, social change, language preservation and historical amnesia. While his critiques are poignant, peeling back the veneer revealing the painful realities of Indigenous life, the underlying message is one of resistance, survival and cultural vibrancy. He challenges the notion that Native peoples are extinct while revealing the continued assaults against Indigenous people, their land and their way of life by the United States and its citizens.

This inequality is eloquently illustrated in his installation Dirt Poor, Oil Rich, 2008. Here, the rod of an oil-pump jack in the center of the room impales the partially buried body of a brown-skinned mannequin with a buffalo skull. The piece addresses the ongoing theft of mineral royalties owed to Oklahoma Native landowners as a result of mismanagement and malfeasance of the BIA Indian trust accounts. As Whitman notes in the accompanying artist statement, “Dirt Poor, Oil Rich reflects [my] continuing frustration with the political and economic forces that too-often result in Indian people becoming homeless in their own land.”[2] This piece was part of the exhibition he co-curated titled Current Realities – a Native response to Oklahoma’s Centennial year celebrations.  Whitman explains, “[The exhibition was] intended to educate the public about the critically important Oklahoma Indian history and to honor the remarkable and painful sacrifices made by Indian Nations, families and individuals during the transition from Indian Territory to statehood.”[3] Throughout his career whether in film, painting, photography, or activism, Whitman focuses people’s attention on the critical issues facing Native people and communities.

[1] Richard Ray Whitman, interview,

[2] Whitman, “Artist Statement for Dirt Poor, Oil Rich,Current Realities exhibition (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: OklaDADA, IAO Gallery, November – December 2007).

[3]Whitman, Ibid.