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'The Keeper' turns 50: Native artists on the impact of Black Bear Bosin's iconic statue

Keeper of the Plains sculpture in downtown Wichita
Andy Tade
Keeper of the Plains sculpture in downtown Wichita

A celebration in honor of the “Keeper of the Plains” is taking place on Saturday, May 18, at the Mid-America All-Indian Museum.

The “Keeper of the Plains” turns 50 this year and has become a symbol of Wichita and an inspiration for Native artists.

The 44-foot-tall statue is a major influence on three local artists. Its creator — Black Bear Bosin — has also had an impact on them.

Writer, actor, comedian and digital artist Daniel Pewewardy recently showed photos at the Wichita Art Museum as a part of the exhibit “Twice Removed.” Pewewardy, who’s not originally from Wichita, moved here early in his life and has a great appreciation for the “Keeper of the Plains.” And not just for its artistic properties.

“A lot of times if work is hard or something … I’ll kinda look at ‘The Keeper,’ and … I might say something corny like, ‘Yeah’ or something…just [to acknowledge it].

“We're on the second floor of the Advanced Learning Library in the learning pavilion facing north-ish. Right behind the Exploration Place and above the tree line, you [can] see ‘The Keeper,’ … that's like the perfect silhouette from the angle we're at.

“I believe ‘The Keeper’ keeps us safe from tornadoes. And I feel maybe that was an underlying intent with the project. Mad respect out to Black Bear for that too.”

Jokes aside, Pewewardy is enthusiastic about what he is celebrating this weekend.

“We're celebrating … [the] Wichita ‘Statue of Liberty’ … one of the most noticeable like landmarks in town,” Pewewardy says. “For me personally, I'm celebrating like a monumental achievement for a member of my tribal nation. This is something that you could be proud of because it was made by a Native American.”

Daniel Pewewardy in his bootleg-style Black Bear Bosin t-shirt that he designed. The shirts will be on sale at the event.
Torin Andersen
Daniel Pewewardy in his bootleg-style Black Bear Bosin t-shirt that he designed.

Pewewardy has also made shirts to raise money for the Bosin Society. He says he was aiming for a more bootleg-style design.

“The aesthetic that I was going for … was like a 1990s, like flea market bootleg shirt,” he says. “On the bottom, you see Bosin’s name in flames and then we have a picture of Bosin next to ‘The Keeper.’

“There's a lot of copyright infringement in regards to ‘The Keepers’ image and likeness that continues to happen throughout the city of Wichita. To pay the most respect to ‘The Keeper,’ You have to remember who made ‘The Keeper.’

Artist Maria Massu also had work on display at the Wichita Art Museum as a part of “Twice Removed.” She finds inspiration in the story-telling aspect of Blackbear Bosin’s work.

“I think I would describe it like, just very colorful and just alive kind of like you can actually … follow the photo and kind of get the story a little bit,” Massu says.

Bosin’s work also encouraged Massu to embrace more of her artistic notions.

“I like that he shows his muses doing certain poses and movement[s] because I don't like doing … still poses,” she says. “I like showing people actually moving around.”

Massu and Pewewardy grew up going to pow-wows at the Mid-American All-Indian Museum. Those are some of their favorite memories.

“I've spent a lot of time of my childhood growing up there … going to different pow-wow’s … almost every weekend. ...The Native American culture is so alive in Wichita and that it isn't gone any more.”

Tattooer Megan Shelton had a similar experience going to pow-wows. She now gets to tattoo “The Keeper” on people….a lot. When she first started, she realized more details that were often overlooked.

“I think from far away you don't see all the little tiny details of like, you know, just that there's like that cutaway the underside of the chin, the nose, those types of things. I feel like when a lot of people reproduce the image, they oversimplify it,” she says.

Shelton’s tattoo style is somewhat influenced by Blackbear Bosin. She describes his style as “in motion.”

“It's a very bold graphic image. But there's also a story that you can see, you know, if you kind of look and like absorb all the imagery that he uses in it.”

The image of this huge sculpture standing at the confluence of the Arkansas River has immense meaning for these artists.

“You know, the Keeper like just kind of symbolizes the people that were here before Wichita is what we know it today,” Shelton says.

“When I was a kid, I remember first reading that it was made by a Kiowa Comanche,” Massu says. “Tribal members have felt like a little bit represented. Nice knowing that there was a piece of my culture like actually being shown that other people can look at.”

“Like a giant Native American … in the middle of downtown Wichita is … beyond any kind of representation I could have expected growing up,” Pewewardy says.

A celebration in honor of the “Keeper of the Plains” takes place on Saturday at the Mid-America All-Indian Museum. The event is hosted by The Bosin Society, The City of Wichita and Sedgwick County. The event starts at 7 a.m. and lasts all day, ending with fireworks after dark.

He has more than 20 years of experience shaping and documenting the arts in Wichita.