The Indian of Their Dreams

by Mark Brown

12/03/2014

If they hadn’t been square dancing beneath it, I might have ignored it. But there they were, the squares of the Central District Square Dance Association, promenading to and fro in their Kentucky Colonel bowties and their petticoats, while above them towered the monument, the one with the Indian slumped over his horse.

It’s the centerpiece of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, but until that day I’d never seen it in person. Oklahoma City is at one end of the trail, and I’ve always been at the other. “The West begins here,” goes the museum tagline, out here, five miles south of Frontier City, on the edge of the Cross Timbers, on the southern flank of the Great Plains. In the glass atrium that houses it, James Earle Fraser’s End of the Trail is unmistakable yet out of context, like a celebrity you might encounter in an airport passing.

Like any monument, it looks captive indoors. At 18 feet tall minus pedestal, it soars in reverse. The horse and rider feel as if they’ve landed there from the ether, their collective slump caught in an embrace of downward pull. The Indian cradles the spear, versus wields it, all but disarmed. That is not a word I choose without trepidation, for decades of critics and commentators, skeptics and sculptors, have seen in Fraser’s statue the fate of the Native carved into history, and the saga of the West uniquely spelled out. It’s an awful weight to carry for a piece of plaster, however large.

“It’s considered pastiche,” said Don Reeves, curator and McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. “It’s been broken so many times and put back together. No telling how much of the amount of original material is left in it. High school kids ran off with the spear a time or two. It wasn’t ever created to be a formal, finished work of art.”

Created when Fraser was a student in a Chicago art studio, it was a model, sculpted of plaster and entered in the 1898 American Art Association competition in Paris, where it won best of show. In 1915, after years of fine-tuning a model, Fraser exhibited the piece in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the San Francisco fair whose memory survives in the monumental Palace of Fine Arts. It placed first again, among 1,500 other sculptures, to the chagrin of the artist Alexander Stirling Calder, who was installed in conflicting roles as both chief sculptor of the exhibition and its contest judge.

“In front of the court of flowers,” Calder wrote in a review, “an equestrian statue of the ‘American Indian’ of unusual significance by Mr. James Earle Fraser of New York City is placed.” Another critic wrote that the work was “meaningful and strong,” but that it would lose impact when viewed elsewhere and out of context. The statue was placed in front of the Palace of Jewels in anticipation of its best-of-show crowning

Criticism aside, the statue had struck a chord with the public. Without Fraser’s permission or consent, photographs, bookends, ashtrays, and picture books were printed featuring the image; hastily produced postcards of the End of the Trail began zipping their way across the continent.

This was not the fate Fraser had intended. He wanted it to stand at Presidio Point, overlooking the Golden Gate, where, last summer, Oracle Team USA sailed its $200 million catamaran to take another America’s Cup. He wanted it bronzed, but San Francisco was too cash-poor in 1915, and too cowboy, to pay for it. In the end, he would have settled for a cut of the merch.

“I have been told more than $250,000 worth of prints and photographs were sold of the statue,” Fraser wrote in his letters. “Who got the money, I don’t know. I do know I didn’t get any of it. As a matter of fact, everyone knew of the statue, but no one seemed to know its sculptor.”

Indeed, Fraser—and certainly his statue—lacked a certain Westward-ho. Another bid was made for Presidio Point by a sculptor backed by the Automobile Club of California, a piece titled Covered Wagon 49ers. In the end, casting anything in bronze had become prohibitive in the heady scrap-heap days of World War I. The award-winning End of the Trail, and all the sculptures it had bested, fell into obscurity, tossed en masse into what one local newspaperman called a “graveyard of statues in the Marina Mud.”

If he couldn’t claim any royalties, Fraser at least wanted his work back. A full decade after San Francisco, he wrote to the director of the de Young Museum of Art: “As it was made of plaster, I presume it did not last long… I would appreciate it if you can tell me whether it bears an inscription of any kind including the title, ‘End of the Trail,’ my name, and the copyright marking consisting of ‘c’ within a circle, which I am accustomed to using.”

But even as the Auto Club of California folks hemmed and hawed around Fraser’s Trail, support came from the public, emboldening Fraser’s efforts to claim his own. “The public has taken your work deeply into their hearts,” one letter read, “and they are interested in you.”

“Best I can say is,” Reeves said, “he recognized, and many do, on the historical side, what the work came to symbolize, as an icon, an image of the American West. Not as a work of art but as a symbol of the plight.

“Plight—not defeat.”

But the End of the Trail wasn’t in the Marina Mud, or anywhere else in San Francisco. Four years after the expo, the city of Visalia, California, 200-plus miles away in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, came and got it for $400. And there it stood for 50 years in a city park, periodic coats of paint keeping it respectable, until a fan of Fraser’s and then-director at Gilrease Museum acquired the Fraser studio collection for his new post, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.

How it got there is an odyssey of chutzpah and horse-trading.

Heavy Bones, Big Feet

Visalia straddles California 99, a string of a highway strung with such knots—Bakersfield, Merced, Modesto, Stockton, Chico. They are one-horse towns (the horse being the vast agriculture of the Central Valley) defined by Sacramento native Joan Didion as towns of “Valley sadness.”

“They hint,” she wrote, “at evenings spent hanging around gas stations, and suicide pacts sealed in drive-ins.”

Visalia is where Tulsa-born photographer Larry Clark Filmed Ken Park, its suicidal opening scene shot in Provident Skate Park. End of the Trail was standing (and decaying) in Mooney Grove Park when a Western-art aficionado named Dean Krakel found and resurrected it.

In 1963, Krakel left his director’s chair at Gilcrease to help the National Cowboy Hall build its coffers. “He was a music man,” said Reeves, who joined the museum in 1979. “You remember the movie Music Man? The guy who comes into the community getting things going, even if he had to bend a few rules.” Before he left Gilcrease, though, Krakel paid a visit to Laura Gardin Fraser, widow of James Earle, to discuss acquiring, and preserving for posterity, the contents of their Connecticut studio.

Five years into Krakel’s tenure at the Cowboy Hall, he learned from a friend of the Frasers the whereabouts of the statue. The discovery lit a fire in him. In the preface to his book End of the Trail: The Odyssey of a Statue, Krakel said the acquisition of the piece took “years filled with controversy, professional and financial risk, drama, frustration, and ultimately great satisfaction.”

“The decision to move an aging 55-year-old plaster statue a distance of 1,500 miles by truck with the intention of performing major restoration work appeared at times not to have been one of my brightest ideas.”

But Krakel was the new kid in town, and he felt compelled to put his stamp on the place. The National Cowboy Hall of Fame (as it was then called) was in expansion mode, having acquired, with Krakel’s help, the bulk of the Fraser studio collection from Syracuse University. The 140-piece ensemble includes James’ model for the Pioneer Woman,[1] Laura’s Oklahoma Run, and even their rule and level. But the collection, in Krakel’s mind, was without its gem.

“In spite of the loss of detail and a number of fissures caused by surface deterioration,” Krakel wrote, “the statue was the most moving creation I had ever seen. The defeat of the Indian is totally embodied in the figure.”

Krakel’s curatorial eye for design was keen, and he noted in his first viewing of the statue—on a pedestal inside a reflecting pool, surrounded by evergreens—the End of the Trail’s geometric balance and simplicity, and the harmonic line in the verticality of the downward-pointed spear. He found in the horse’s swollen eye,[2] wind-blown tail, and slightly raised hoof a feeling “of almost unbearable pain.”

After meeting with his contact at Tulare County Parks’ board, with whom he was negotiating for the statue, Krakel went back to see the piece again. Alone, at 3 a.m., in the glow of moonlight, he fell hard. “As I studied it, I could not help recalling the words of Plenty Coups, the Absarokee (Crow) chief: ‘I may be gone, my father, when you return here. I am anxious to go where I may live again as men were intended to live. My bones are heavy and my feet large. But I know justice and tried all my life to be just, even to
those who have taken away my old life that was so good. My whole thoughts are of my people. I want them to be healthy, to become again the race they have been.’ ”

It’s as if Krakel had gone Quixote and found his beloved Dulcinea. There, in the moonlight of Mooney Grove, the End of the Trailtransformed, in his mind, from lost relic to patriotic shrine. The hallmark of the Fraser collection, he wrote, “suddenly became an epitaph of national importance, a monument to all Indians, to their nobility as well as to their tragedy.” Convinced of the piece’s artistic merit and historic significance, and of his fated role as guardian angel, Krakel carried out his destiny. “Before me was a treasure that I vowed should be preserved for America.”

Krakel left the park exhilarated and, for the first time, a little panicked. He was about to spend on one piece more than he already owed Laura Fraser for her whole studio ensemble. In what would become classic Krakel fashion, he always preferred two birds in the bush to one in hand.

“When he set his mind to bring a new exhibition,” Reeves said, “it was visionary, bold to the extreme. He’d tell the board, ‘Why do we do this? It needs to be done!’ With Visalia, it was, ‘We’ll give you a bronze casting, bring (renowned mold-maker) Cesare Contini in from New York City, go have it cast in Italy, place it in your park, and then it will survive.

“And you give us this plaster casting created in 1915.”

Krakel was originally dealing with Visalia about a concrete reproduction. It didn’t matter that their plaster statue was falling into the fountain. The mere idea of concrete hit home with a resounding thud. All of a sudden, Fraser’s studio model, until then an object of decay and neglect, became high art. Wrote one local in a letter to the editor: “The difference between an original Rembrandt, a Renoir, a Van Gogh, or a Michelangelo and a copy printed in full color is the same difference there will be between the original statue and its cement copy.”

Fairly quickly into the deal, realizing it was about to go south, Krakel upped the ante and promised Visalia a bronze[3]—a Cadillac on a Corolla budget.

Of Unusual Significance 

In his letters, James Earle Fraser, chronicling his adolescent days in the Dakotas, wrote of a hunchback who would sit on his porch carving chalkstone into abstract forms. Fraser would walk by on his way home from school. The stone came from a nearby quarry. “It was east of Mitchell toward the Jim River,” Fraser wrote, and it produced a soft stone that worked like cheese and hardened with age.

Though his father, a railroad man, wanted his son to study engineering, Fraser’s right-brain tendencies were powerful. Ultimately, he brought both minds together in a career as audacious in its output as artistic in its merits. Yet, unlike the Morans and Turners, Russells and Remingtons of the Western oeuvre, Fraser’s name fails to resonate far outside the annals of art history, in spite of his output.

Fraser produced some 500 works in his career, including bronzes, marbles, original plasters, myriad prints, coins, medals, and paintings. He designed the iconic Buffalo nickel, which is also called the Indian-head nickel, given the profile that adorns its obverse (heads), versus the bison on the reverse (tails). It’s his Theodore Roosevelt equestrian that guards the Museum of Natural History in New York, the one that comes to life in the form of Robin Williams in Night at the Museum.

The historian Frederick Jackson Turner draws the line of frontier encroachment at the hands of industrial expanse at 1890. He delivered his theory in an 1893 address to the American Historical Association of Chicago titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” now known as the “Turner Thesis.” A year later, at the age of 17, Fraser molded his first End of the Trail. He wrote that it came from an idea that had been haunting him since childhood: “Often hunters, wintering with the Indians, stopped over to visit my grandfather on their way south and in that way I heard many stories about the Indians. On one occasion a fine fuzzy bearded old hunter remarked with some bitterness in his voice, ‘The Injuns will be driven into the Pacific Ocean.’”

Fraser wasn’t the only immigrant son to confront the shifting landscape of the American West through artistic self-expression. Documenting the so-called end of the American Indian, in both word and image, was a turn-of-the-century rite of passage for a good many American artists and writers.

“We construct identity by finding ourselves in relation to an array of people,” wrote historian Philip J. Deloria, a Dakota, “and objects who are not ourselves.” There’s a term of art for it: “Salvage ethnography—the capturing of an authentic culture thought to be rapidly and inevitably disappearing—has from the beginning been haunted by fractures of logic.” Meaning, it might be more romantic, and certainly more convenient, to depict the conquered Native atop a prairie pony, armed with quill and bow, than on a metropolitan street corner sporting a jean jacket. (I still remember the queasiness I felt when my brother showed me an album he’d just bought on vinyl, Ed Ames Sings Ed Ames, which warped forever my vision of Ames’ Mingo, the Cherokee sidekick to Fess Parker’s Daniel Boone.)

Fraser writes in his papers of the Black Hills of his transient youth, a region and an era he shared with nearby Sioux children, if through the lens of a resident alien: “Each night, we were surrounded by packs of wolves. Their mournful howling caused my spine to tingle and impressed upon me the lonely vastness of the West.” A loneliness Fraser tried to channel, exacerbated by the disappearing Indian.

“In conjunction with Indian removal,” wrote Deloria, “popular American imagery began to play on earlier symbolic linkages between Indians and the past, and these images eventually produced the full-blown ideology of the vanishing Indian, which proclaimed it foreordained that less-advanced societies should disappear in the presence of those more advanced.”

Those then coloring history—Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, you could argue—turned from the Manifest Destiny policies of Washington to the tribes themselves, as if the proof of vanquish was somehow inherent in the pudding. But even Washington itself wanted to wax poetic. “ ‘By a law of nature,’ ” Deloria quotes Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, speaking in 1828, “ ‘they seem destined to a slow, but sure extinction. Everywhere, at the approach of the white man, they fade away. We hear the rustling of their footsteps, like that of the withered leaves of autumn, and they are gone forever. They pass mournfully by us, and they return no more.’ ”

This premature death rattle is what fueled Krakel’s imagination. But, in spite of the years of deterioration and abuse that wore on the End of the Trail, the citizens of Visalia—some of them, anyway—felt equally compelled by the monument’s significance and protested vehemently, in jingoistic letters to the editor, of this cowboy from the plains who’d come to steal their Indian.

“We’ve awakened,” one of them wrote, “to the value of something we’ve got.”

The Rape of Mooney Grove

Krakel’s first challenge was getting the thing out of the park, and in one piece.

A San Francisco philanthropist who recalled the statue’s dominance at the Palace of Fine Arts offered to have a bronze casting made of the original, in the interest of keeping the End of the Trail in California. As Krakel brought out colleagues from Oklahoma City to begin surveying the feasibility of such a move, local opposition began to swell.

“If the board gives (it) away in exchange for a cement copy,” an editorial quotes one reader, “the rape of Mooney Grove will certainly go down in history as one of the most stupid acts of this or any other board in Tulare County.”

The groundswell compelled Krakel to revise his original offer from concrete to bronze. This would be news to the museum board in Oklahoma City. But with an agreement on paper, Krakel called in his staff at the Cowboy Hall to study how best to move the statue without losing it. Given the settling and surface cracks, and the still unknown composition of the plaster itself, lifting it in one piece was overruled in favor of cutting the Indian off at the waist. Shipping crates would be built to transport the two crated pieces on a flatbed from the Central Valley to Oklahoma City. As the first cuts were made, Krakel and team held its collective breath. “The torso swung in a wide, easy, breathtaking arc,” he wrote, “gently rocking to a fro like a chair on a Ferris wheel.”

Not far into the trip, Krakel got a call from the dispatcher of the trucking firm doing the hauling: The End of the Trail was coming to pieces. Half the Indian’s face and most of his chest had been crushed. Richard Muno, museum curator, bought three tons of sawdust to stuff inside the crate, cushioning the crumbling plaster. Leonard McMurry, an Oklahoma sculptor charged with the project, assured Krakel that, if the pieces could remain relatively intact, restoration would be a cinch. “Shucks, Dean,” he said, “ it won’t be anything at all to restore it if I can hang onto the pieces.” Reporters from Los Angeles and San Francisco, having gotten wind, began to ring Krakel back home.

They were the least of those he had to answer to. In addition to the $475,000 he’d paid Laura Gardin Fraser for her studio, Krakel was budgeting another $250,000 for a building to house the End of the Trail, a statue whose value he was calculating at $330,000, based on acquisition and moving costs, insurance, restoration and maintenance. It was enough, for now, to just unveil the thing, which the museum did in late May 1968, after McMurry had stabilized it. Philanthropist and Navy man John E. Kirkpatrick—named “Oklahoma’s Admiral for the Arts” in a newspaper headline—spoke, and was followed by tribal elders, who “chanting, symbolically proclaimed the arrival of one who had come from great distances to the land of Oklahoma.”

The veil was pulled from the End of the Trail, revealing a statue that had sagged 14 inches since its placement at the Palace of Jewels in 1915. Inside the cavity were the blackened wicks of alcohol-burning candles, sealed inside the plaster more than 50 years ago, to ensure that the plaster would cure.

Mooney Grove would wait three years for its casting. In the meantime, Krakel began fundraising for the cash to pay for the bronze and for the building that would house his original. Half the funding came from Kirkpatrick, a decorated Navy man who made a fortune in steel and then oil, and the other half from one Nona Payne, the widow of a Pampa, Texas, rancher. At the 1970 dedication of the Payne-Kirkpatrick Memorial Building,[4] John Tower, the first the Republican U.S. senator to hail from Texas since Reconstruction, gave a nod to David Payne, “paying tribute to the West Texas rancher for his vision, frugality, and devotion to his state and country.”

Hollywood leading man Joel McCrea, a Cowboy Museum trustee, introduced Tower. In a photo of the proceedings, McCrea sits off to the far left, studying his lines. At the podium is Jasper Ackerman, another benefactor, while at the far right, a bored-looking, bespectacled Krakel stares out of the frame. The End of the Trail looms as large as ever, larger, behind a fresh veil of glass and steel.

On the podium, facing the audience, is a drawing of what appears to be another End of the Trail. Upon closer inspection, the horse is bucking, not sulking, and the rider—maybe an Indian, maybe a cowboy, or even a headless rider, so obscure is the figure—is doing his best to stay in the saddle.

This Is the End

Gilcrease Museum presented a show in 1985, James Earle Fraser: Sculptor of American Heroes. Julie Pearson, writing in a March 1985 article in Uptown News, pounced on the retrospective, attacking Fraser’s depiction of the American Indian and even his horse, which “also seems to be on its last leg.”

“But while the beaten Indian may have had his turn-of-the-century appeal, the image should now be seen for what it is—a false image that gratifies the public’s desire for breast-beating while at the same time reinforcing its notions of cultural superiority.” Pulling no punches, Pearson mocked Fraser for depicting “Manifest Destiny, roughrider machismo, or war as a noble cause.”

That 1985 exhibition was a co-presentation of Gilcrease and Syracuse University, original keeper of the Fraser flame. Some of the works on display were even for sale. The catalogue included a “Retail Price List for James Earle Fraser Bronzes, with Tax,” offering a dozen replicas of Study of Thomas Jefferson for $12,720 each (Gilcrease edition) and 10 seated Lincoln copies for $11,660 a pop (Syracuse exhibit, and the same price put on 11 replicas of Pioneer Woman). Also in the Syracuse show were 34 examples of End of the Trail, ranging in size from 12 to 34 inches and costing between $6,360 and $18,020.

Fraser designed more patriotic sculptures than any other artist in America, and created one of the more iconic images of an American Indian that we possess. In molding mud, with his hands, Fraser made it his métier to wrestle down a version of American history he could live with. Among award-winning sculptures and designs that included the statues at the entrance of the Lincoln Memorial, the Navy Cross, and a medal awarded by a group called the American Committee for Relief of Devastated France, he crafted the two works for which he is best known, or should be, anyway: the Indian-head nickel and his End of the Trail. Indian as currency, and enigma.

One I have in the top shelf of my bedroom dresser, in with a fistful of other yen I’ve kept for some curious reason or other, none of them being value. In time—and it took some time—Fraser saw his other monumental work cast in metal. In addition to the Krakel gift that adorns Mooney Grove Park, End of the Trail stands in bronze in the city of Waupun, Wisconsin, bestowed there by Clarence Shaler, an inventor who made his fortune in vulcanized rubber tire patches. Shaler had seen the statue on its pedestal at the San Francisco expo.

“It serves as more than a thing of beauty,” said F.T. Clark, town mayor, at the unveiling. “It seems fitting that the End of the Trail should be placed in Waupun, which is known as ‘Early Dawn,’ thus completing the beginning and end of the Indians’ day.”

In 1975, Dean Krakel, now firmly in the saddle, began a conquest of a different sort, venting his frustrations at the metric system, a conversion he considered obtrusive at least and, at worst, an un-American activity. On the heels of Congress passing the Metric Conversion Act, Krakel, unconvinced of metric’s popularity, conducted his own poll and mounted a defense of traditional weights and measures. “At my own expense,” he told a reporter with the Daily Oklahoman, “I sent a trained historian to the Bureau of Standards to review the original studies. But they had already destroyed their records. To me this is worse than Watergate.”

“We wear 10-gallon hats,” he said, “not 10-liter hats. Nine hundred million people are using Chinese. Why don’t we switch to the Chinese language?”

Krakel said he’d received letters from Canadians who told him the conversion has cost their country much confusion and money. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, in 1977, asked him why the zeal, noting on the airwaves that he’d been “conducting his campaign from the headquarters of the Cowboy Hall Fame.”

“It’s in keeping with the Marxist doctrine of one world, one monetary system, one language, one educational system,” Krakel said. “It’s anti-Christ, this one weights and measurements, in this philosophical way the Communist wants one of everything. We’re Americans. We’re different. And we did it by the inch, by the yard, by the mile.” By the end of the interview, the DJ could only chuckle.

Krakel’s campaign ways got the best of him, and by the early 1980s he was out at the hall. Then, in April 1985, Krakel used a proxy-vote maneuver to reclaim operational control of the museum, in defiance of several prominent board members, who retired on the spot, among them Edward L. Gaylord, publisher of the Oklahoman; Dean A. McGee, honorary chairman and director of Kerr-McGee Corporation; Ardmore oilman Sam Noble; and Dale E. Mitchell, chairman of the board of Citizens National Bank.

“This action today, which could destroy the Hall, was instigated by Krakel and a dissident group of out-of-state directors led by Frank Leu, an insurance man from Tennessee, and Ed Rutherford, a cattle feeder from California,” said Gaylord in a statement to his own newspaper. “Both Rutherford and Leu are good businessmen and friendly fellows, but entirely ignorant of the local situation regarding Dean Krakel.

“Krakel is an outstanding expert in appraising and selling Western art, probably the best in the country. His ability as an administrator and a business manager is near zero.”

“It was sort of like a coup that might take place in a banana republic,” Mitchell, the museum’s treasurer, told the New York Times.

In defense, Krakel filed a libel and slander suit against Gaylord and other board members, accusing them of conspiring to ruin him by spreading false statements about him, and seeking $35 million in damages. An attorney for the defendants called the suit “woefully inadequate.”

In 1988, Krakel filed for bankruptcy. He died July 2, 1998.

“The Cowboy Hall of Fame folks who hired my dad had no clue about Western art and didn’t know anything about Fraser or the End of the Trail,” said Krakel’s son, Dean, a Denver-based photojournalist. “He brought all of that to the empty shell that was the CBHF. They hired him because of his vision and his can-do attitude. He had this incredible passion for the West, a knowledge of its history, a love for its art and artists, and this amazing dream and vision.

“What is more, the ability to inspire others so that they jumped on his train and went along for the ride. And, hey, they built the damn train and the tracks as well.”

In 1880, when Fraser was four years old, his father, Thomas Alexander Fraser, moved the family to Deadwood, South Dakota, blazing a trailhead for his employer, the Chicago-Milwaukee Railroad. The eight years that young Fraser spent on the prairie informed his work thereafter.

Dean Krakel ended his career as director of the High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish, 15 miles north of Deadwood, on a feeder creek of the Redwater River, itself a tributary of the Missouri River. The High Plains motto is “… How time flies.”

Happy Trails

Once you start looking for it, it’s everywhere.

It’s the logo for Saylor’s End of the Trail Stable in Walkerton, Indiana. “Leaving camp for the wide open spaces,” with Fraser’s subject silhouetted against a red-orange mesa. There is an End of the Trail Cabinet Company in Merced, California, an hour and half north of Visalia.

It’s for sale at The Cheap Place Patches and Gifts (“Let’s talk about Patches”). “Some people really like Native American art, especially the popular End of the Trail statue.” At an online shop called The Flag Makers, you can buy it emblazoned across an American flag of 3-by-5-foot polyester and inked with UV inhibitors “to make sure your colors last.”

It’s in a free pattern at Stallings Stained Glass of Swartz Creek, Michigan, and on the broad back of a customer of Masterpiece Tattoo & Body Piercing of Salem, New Hampshire, inked against a billowing tuft of cloud.

You can buy it on a belt buckle from Just Buckles: “Dejected American native sits astride a horse while a native face looks into the future. Eagles fly in this sepia gradient rectangular framed belt buckle that remembers America’s history.”

A group of Georgia rockers called the End of the Trail Band played a reunion show last March at a club called the End of the Trail Saloon. “The End of the Trail is not only a band, it is a family, and a life’s long story.” It’s on the cover of the Beach Boys 1971 album Surf’s Up, which leads with a song called “Don’t Go Near the Water.”

It’s in my own house, under my own nose, sewn onto a blanket tucked away in a closet, a keepsake, and on the cover of my wife’s Owasso Rams diploma.[5]

It’s not included in the “20 Objects That Shape Oklahoma” spread published in the August 2014 issue of Oklahoma Magazine, nor is anything else from the National Cowboy museum. But it’s beyond object, printed on shot glasses, ball caps, phone protectors, wall clocks, earrings, and bookends. Wikipedia calls one version of it “the original bronze replica,” an electronic footnote to its mongrel pedigree.

At Lyon’s Indian Store, you can buy it on a puzzle or a postcard or, for a few dollars more, as a small copper statuette with a young Indian woman bowing elegantly in place of Fraser’s buckled warrior. The serenity on her face, with the fluorescent light reflecting off the polished metal, is almost sweet.

My mother-in-law owns two small replicas of End of the Trail, one of which sits on her coffee table. In the 18 years I’ve been visiting there, I’d never noticed it.

I’d been working at Philbrook a year and a half before I saw Fritz Scholder’s The End of the Trail, 1970. It hangs on a column in the small, contemporary room of the Zink Galleries. To get to it, I have to descend two flights of Italian Renaissance, English Romanticism, and colonial portraiture.

Scholder’s painting of a sculpture adds a formidable wrinkle to the canon of the Trail. Of course, by 1970, Fraser’s mark with the statue had been set in proverbial stone. Scholder was painting End of the Trail not in tribute but in effigy, and was as likely riffing off a shot glass, or a motel sign, or an album cover. Either way, from somewhere subconscious, the one frontier that never closes.

“Painting today is probably even more important than ever before,” Scholder said in a 1996 interview, “but the artist really must have something to say, about whatever subject, because every subject is a cliché.”


Footnotes:

1. Fraser was among the artists (along with Alexander Stirling Calder, John Gregory, and Hermon Atkins MacNeil) commissioned by Ponca City oilman E.W. Marland to sculpt “a memorial to the pioneer mothers,” the winner of which would be installed in the Cherokee Outlet, a rectangle of land bordering Kansas and running between roughly Enid and Woodward. The winning model, by Bryant Baker, is a Ponca City landmark and Oklahoma icon. Fraser’s Affectionate—with her hair straight, long, and pushed upward by a scarf that appears to lengthen her neck in a way reminiscent of the coiled rings worn by some Zimbabwean women; her strong nose that seems to sniff the prairie air for both harm and opportunity; her long-fingered hands that support the babe who sucks at the breast laid bare from a thin blouse that wrinkles on her shoulders; and the rifle barrel cradled under her left arm—could be mistaken for an Indian. Syracuse University’s Martin H. Bush, writing in a 1969 Kennedy Galleries catalogue, said it eloquently captured “the frantic alarm of Indian raids.” In a small, separate study of the statue, Fraser’s woman braces the shoulders of a young boy now old enough to stand. Her look is straight ahead, and her breast tucked away.

2. The horse’s eye is in post-modernist painter Fritz Scholder’s End of the Trail, which hangs in the Swannie Zink American Indian Galleries at Philbrook Museum of Art, is equally swollen. It’s as if Scholder has repossessed Fraser’s warrior, and the horse he rode in on. Fraser had depicted Native America at its low point, and Scholder was offering a counter. “The sculpture,” said Christina Burke, curator of Native American and non-Western art at Philbrook Museum, “represents the perceived last days of that traditional way of life, which was irreparably changed by non-Natives who tamed the wild West, its land and its people. Scholder re-appropriated this iconic image for his own purpose, turning the idea of the vanishing Indian on its head.”

3.  Curiously, Krakel offers two varying accounts of his original correspondence with the powers that be in Visalia. On page 96 of his End of the Trail, he cites a letter he wrote to the board: “On February 2, 1968, I wrote: I would like to come there and meet with you and members of your Parks and Recreation Board to discuss the possibility of our trading a concrete model for yours… ” But, in his book Adventures in Western Art, published four years later, the “concrete model” is now a “bronze model.” Revisionist history or lapse of memory, Krakel had already built a national shrine around what was essentially a lost cause. He was bound to be enamored.

4.  It’s now an exhibit for youth called the Children’s Cowboy Corral. The End of the Trail now stands in the atrium designed for it in a museum expansion in the late 1990s. Thanks to the oversight of one Duane Cartier, a visiting curator, the statue is now surfaced in a white silica sealed by the application of a solvent. “The Germans created it to put on buildings,” said current curator Don Reeves. “Up in the Alps. You know those alpine houses with the broad wooden beams surrounded by white plaster? They came up with a treatment that was impervious to external deprivation.” In front of the End of the Trail are two interpretive panels, 30 by 40 inches each, presenting what Reeves called “the artist’s view and the historical view.”

5.  Owasso is a tribal term meaning “end of the trail.” Some sources say Osage, but “I don’t think it’s Osage,” said Tahlequah-born, Pawhuska-bred Ryan Red Corn. “Sometimes those places get written down wrong. That don’t mean they weren’t over there. We have other names that match up. Tasilatawa is what we call Tulsa. ‘O’ designates the result of something. I just don’t know about Owasso. It just doesn’t pull together.” Red Corn, in addition to being a student of Osage place names, runs an ad agency called Buffalo Nickel Creative.


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 22, November 15, 2014.