Betty Nixon and Ruby Williams — sisters in the Indian Way — drew close to the drums on Sunday.
Now matriarchs and elders of the Native American community, the two were some of the first board members of the Mid-America All-Indian Center when it formed and opened in the mid-1970s. On Sunday, they listened and watched as younger friends and family danced and sang at the Friends of the Keeper Powwow, a two-day celebration that honors Blackbear Bosin’s Keeper of the Plains statue.
The 44-foot-tall sculpture of a warrior raising his hands skyward at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers has become an iconic symbol in Wichita and is one of the state’s most recognized works of art.
It also symbolizes how far the Native American community in Wichita has struggled and advanced through the decades.
Like the sculpture, Nixon and Williams are survivors. Williams, now 93 and living in Oklahoma City, said she remembered the days when Wichita’s Indian community had no place to meet.
“We got to talking,” Williams said. “At that time, Oklahoma City had a group of Indians who had a place. Then we heard Tulsa was beginning to have one. And, we thought, why can’t Wichita start one? We thought it was something that could never happen.”
The vision was to build a center which could be both a cultural center and a source of social services for Native Americans. The building was given the name “Say-Say-Pah,” a Kiowa name for “Arrowhead.” And, indeed, it was built in the shape of an arrow. The Mid-America All-Indian Center houses a museum, art gallery, gift shop and kiva.
“So many things have happened to our Indian center,” Nixon said. “It has gone through so many problem things — the board has changed. The new members don’t understand what happened in the first place. The Indian people are the ones who brought this here.”
In its history, the center has experienced periods of turmoil. During the early 1980s, the center was almost shut down with a quarter-million dollar debt. It took board members and leaders working together to erase the debt and bring the center back onto solid footing. And a few years ago, the center again went through about four years of turmoil that included $135,000 of debt and the loss of more than 270 pieces of Indian artwork and artifacts. The city temporarily closed the center to regroup.
Nixon said the Indian center and the sculpture are symbolic of the legacy and history of the Native American tribes represented in Wichita and the impact they have had in the history of the city — none more so than in the sculpture’s creator, Blackbear Bosin.
Bosin was born June 5, 1921, in Cyril, Okla., near Anadarko.
His father was a Kiowa, his mother a Comanche. He attended a mission school in Anadarko and moved to Wichita in 1940.
“We first started with Blackbear. We formed this group that was strong,” Nixon said. “We all stayed together.”