Harley Tallchief was born in 1968 on the Cattaraugus Reservation approximately 30 minutes outside of Buffalo, New York. His father was from the region as a member of the Seneca Nation and his mother from the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. From infancy until the age of sixteen, Harley Tallchief’s family moved from one migrant farm field to the next outside the San Francisco area including Stockton, Manteca and Tracy. This line of work was familiar to the family, especially to his maternal grandmother, Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of Dorthea Lange’s famous Depression-era photograph, Migrant Mother.
When Tallchief returned to New York state around 1984, he remained there for eight years before moving to Odessa, Texas. The specific location was chosen in order to be close to his first wife’s family and to work in the oil fields that produce nearly one-third of domestic oil for the United States. A significant factor in the decision to move away from the Cattaraugus Reservation was to avoid the devastation of alcoholism that ran throughout the Native American community and Tallchief’s family. For the past 23 years, Harley Tallchief has worked the roughneck gigs of the Permian Basin oil industry for twelve to sixteen hours a day while maintaining a rotation of tribal pow-wows and competitions that have made him famous among these circles. Tallchief claims to have never received less than second place award in his dance regalia design or dance performance since the age of twelve. His love of dancing and meeting people, especially dispelling stereotypes of Native Americans, has kept him going since he began at the age of three, taking him across the United States and Canada.
When Harley Tallchief was young, his parents introduced him to traditional Native American beading with his brothers to keep them out of trouble. At age four, Tallchief began dancing, later combining the two into his entire art of performance. His has declined commissions of other dancers’ regalia so that he is not competing against his own work and recently began to focus more of his attention to sculptural forms of contemporary art. Although he considered the regalia to be spiritual and serious, his artwork is taken with a much lighter air, an understanding of his person and place in West Texas, America, 2016.
Tallchief’s work plays a significant role in exploring his Native American heritage and personal history while borrowing from the collective American cultural. One of his earliest sculptures, a crib featuring a mix of Walt Disney characters Native American symbols was started in 1989 with a book of Disney characters, a crib and beads. “It was all the material I had and just started working on it,” says Tallchief. After parts of the crib were stolen and subsequently recovered, the crib was finally finished in 2014. Images of a “redman” Mickey Mouse and Daffy Duck with tepees don the bright yellow sides. A second crib was created in the span of seven months while Tallchief worked out of his trailer after the long days a work in the oil fields. Images of the Redwoods, My Little Princess and others cover the bright orange, fully beaded crib decorated for his step-daughter.
Another series of sculptures that Tallchief has created recently completed are on skulls of cows and buffalo, including hair and other natural materials. More stereotypical imagery can be found on the skulls, both exploring pride of one traditional culture and the imagery found from the collective American culture. On one, Tallchief’s “Indian Clown” dances on the snout; the character invented for the very purpose of making fun of the entire situation. He continues to use this humor to explore some of the serious issues among present-day Native Americans with found objects of American identity.
Harley Tallchief resides in Odessa, Texas and is Headman of the Permian Basin Native American Association, located in Big Spring, Texas.
By Jake Weigel