Comanche artist works in black and white.
The Indian’s face is lined with battle scars, long braids wrapped in skins, narrow eyes staring into your soul, a diamond and pearl pin at his neck. It’s a perfect picture of the last chief of the Comanche Nation—onlyQuanah-Comanche isn’t a picture. It’s a pen-and-ink drawing by another Comanche leader, Ronald L. “Chief Tachaco” Burgess.
“When I was doing it, I was thinking about him, everything he’d gone through,” says Burgess, who was elected chairman of the Comanche Nation in 1985 and later founded Comanche Nation College in Lawton, Oklahoma. “As an artist, you think about your history.” So Burgess recreates that history, “painting” his stories in black and white.
His interest in art began while growing up in Oklahoma, and it got him into trouble at Fort Sill Indian School. “One time I drew a picture of this teacher, and, oh, she was this mean, old teacher, and it looked just like her,” he says of his seventhgrade re-creation. “Everybody was passing it around and laughing, and, well, I got sent to the principal’s office. That’s kind of how it started.”
Reared by his grandparents, he grew up speaking Comanche, but his relatives stopped talking to him in his native tongue before he started school. “They didn’t want me to speak broken English,” he says. “They didn’t want kids to make fun of me, didn’t want me to have a hard time in school, so they just stopped. When I spoke in Comanche, they’d answer me in English, or sometimes they wouldn’t answer me, and I’d have to ask in English and they’d talk to me in English.”
That likely helped him in his pursuit of education. Burgess majored in art education at the University of Central Oklahoma, taught art for a while, then went to Arizona State University and earned a master’s degree in Indian education. Other degrees came from the University of Oklahoma, Landford University and El Reno College. He traveled from job to job, working as a teacher or in administration.
All the while, he found himself drawing. When he decided to retire and move to Cochiti Lake, N.M., in 2007, he turned back to his art, starting his day the very same way he has for years. “I get up every morning and go pray, smoke my cigarette, drink my coffee and thank God,” he says. “Thank you, Lord, for making me Comanche.”
Ronald Burgess’ art is available at Shush Yaz Trading Company Native American Art Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M., 505-920-0441, www.shushyaz.com. Also visit www.historynet.com/magazines/ wild_west for a longer article on Burgess and his artwork.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.