Several years ago while I was working on ART OF THE OKLAHOMA JUDICIAL CENTER, Justice Yvonne Kauger introduced me to a visitor who had stopped by to see the art displayed in the building. She asked if I would escort Dan Brackett to see the Native American pieces on display.
As I recall, our conversation that day centered mostly on Acee Blue Eagle – the artist I had most recently been researching for the book. We had a lively talk about the paintings and sketches and he invited me to come see his collection of Native American art.
At that point, I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. And besides, I had a book to write. He thanked me for being his tour guide and went on his way. Frankly, I didn’t give the encounter much thought – I frequently talked to visitors about the art in the Judicial Center.
When the book was finished our paths crossed again at various book signings and events.
“When you have some time, come see my collection at the Student Union,” he said. By this time, I’d learned that Dan was an art collector and, indeed had an impressive collection at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center.
I took him up on his offer and met him at the David L. Boren Student Union. I expected to spend an hour or so looking at the art. Instead I spent more than three hours walking the building and listening to stories about each piece in the massive collection.
“Mirac Creepingbear was the artist that got me started,” he said. The painting was “Corn Maiden” and the year was 1992. “I can remember where I got every single one. Every purchase was an experience.”
Dan collected the art one piece at a time and had been very deliberate in having it placed in the Student Union, what he called the “living room” of the campus.
“Hundreds of students pass through here each day,” he said. “They’re going to be medical professionals. I hope to inspire young collectors that when they’re ready to buy their first piece of art that they buy it in Oklahoma from a Native artist.”
Throughout the 1990s, Dan hung the pieces he bought in his office at the O’Donoghue Research Institute where he performed pancreatic cancer research. When the walls of his office were full, the paintings started spilling out into the hallways. Eventually word got out about his collection and around 2010 OU President David Boren and his wife Molly arranged to tour the O’Donoghue building.
They immediately recognized the significance of the treasure and made arrangements to give the art a more permanent home.
“Our boyhood friendship paid off,” Dan said – he’d attended elementary school in Seminole with David Boren. It took a team of site services workers three and a half weeks to move the collection, which numbers near 300 pieces. The Student Union is a public building with no admission fee and extended operating hours, making it readily accessible to both students and the general public.
A frequently used conference room on the second floor displays works focused on the Sun Dance theme. Nearly three dozen paintings and drawings by artists including Mirac Creepingbear, Sherman Chaddlesone, Doc Tate Nevaquaya and Robert Taylor are displayed along with a bevy of historic photographs by Edward Curtis documenting the ceremony. The presentation offers insight not only into the work of contemporary Native American artists of the past thirty years, but also into the symbols and rituals surrounding this sacred ceremony.
“The Sun Dance is the most significant sacrifice a man could make short of death,” Dan said.
His enthusiasm about the subject was contagious and prompted me to do some research of my own.
As one of the most sacred Native American traditions, the Sun Dance ceremony focuses on sacrifice and prayer. Many Plains Tribes celebrated the annual days-long ceremony that included fasting and building a prayer lodge.
In 1883, the United States government issued the Rules Governing the Court of Indian Offenses. In addition to establishing basic tribal courts, this edict also banned many Native American ceremonies and traditions, including the Sun Dance ceremony. The penalty for participation ranged from food rations being withheld to incarceration. This prohibition dealt a heavy blow to the custom; among some tribes, the tradition all but disappeared. Nearly a century passed before the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 was signed into law offering protection for the Sun Dance and other ceremonies.
Dan was also Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Oscar Jacobson Foundation, an organization dedicated to encouraging artists and art appreciation. That Foundation was named for a man who devoted much of his life to promoting Native Arts and Artists, and bringing world attention to the Kiowa Six painters. Dan worked diligently to continue the legacy of Oscar Jacobson, his eyes sparkling when he showed the work of up-and-coming artists Nicole Hatfield and Joshua Garrett.
“Collecting Native American art has really shaped my life,” he said. “I’ve become friends with many of these artists and it’s developed into a whole community.”
For several months I worked to place a magazine article about Dan and the Student Union collection, but with no success. The Oklahoma Arts Council did recognize the value of his contribution, honoring him with the Community Service Award during the Governor’s Arts Awards ceremony in 2014.
After I moved to Texas, I saw less of Dan, but kept up with his constant activity in support of Native Artists through Facebook. Earlier this year he opened a gallery, The Corridor at Paseo to provide Oklahoma Native artists a high-traffic venue to display their work.
On Friday evening I learned Dan died unexpectedly that day.
It’s been more than a year since we talked in person, but I remember discussing the legacy of Edward Curtis, the photographer who documented many aspects of the Sun Dance Ceremony. We’d both attended a panel discussion at the Sovereignty Symposium where several audience members had spoken very critically of Curtis.
“Edward Curtis’ life would’ve been a lot easier if he’d stayed in Seattle doing portrait photography,” I said. “But he couldn’t do that. He was obsessed with sharing Native culture with as many people as he could through his photography.”
Dan chuckled. “Some people say I’m a little obsessed when it comes to art.”
Countless visitors to the Student Union, along with many emerging Native artists and gallery visitors have all been richly blessed by that obsession.
Thank you, Dan! I’ll miss you!