Charles M. Russell (1864–1926)
Powder Face Arapaho, 1903
Opaque and transparent watercolor over graphite underdrawing on paper
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection by gift of Pauline French in 1948
The title of this watercolor perhaps refers to the Powder Face who was a well-known and respected chief among a portion of the Arapaho tribe from 1869 until his death in 1886. If so, Russell’s depiction is an idealized representation of the chief as a young southern plains warrior, rather than the older leader of a people that had been forced onto reservation lands in a small section of the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). In reality, Powder Face made the most of his situation by amassing a large herd of well-managed cattle for the benefit of his people. Tragically, his success was shortlived, for unscrupulous Indian agents and jealous white cattlemen eventually confiscated the tribe’s rightful grazing lands after provoking a series of violent incidents. In Russell’s watercolor, the Arapaho warrior wears an accurate nineteenth-century hair style consisting of segmented, slicked-down sections with the parts in between painted a vermilion red. The stuffed bird adorning his head is probably a “war medicine,” intended to bring him good luck in battle. At this point in his career Russell most likely did not encounter many Arapaho, but he based such renderings on active reading, oral interviews, observations in the field, and authentic artifacts that he saw or collected. After a number of years of this type of activity, he became very knowledgable about the plains tribes, both southern and northern.