The story of Shonke
Mon-thi^, a hidden figure in American history, is now recovered
at the National Portrait Gallery
Gonzales-Days photograph of the Portrait of Shonke Mon-thi^
now resides in the collections of the Smithsonian's National
Portrait Gallery. (NPG)
In 1904, the priest of the Gentle Sky clan, Shonke
Mon-thi^, came to Washington, D.C. as a member of an Osage delegation
to negotiate the land and mineral rights of his nation. While in
this city of diplomatic exchanges, the clan leader received an invitation
from the Smithsonian Institutions U.S. National Museum to
a photographer and have a plaster life mask made of his face.
The resulting photographs and plaster were collected by the museums
department of anthropology. They also served as the basis for sculptor
Lemon, who used them to craft a polychrome plaster bust that
was exhibited at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis,
Missouri. The fairs extensive anthropological and ethnographic
exhibits were widely varied, featuring busts, musical instruments,
textiles, baskets, a model American Indian boarding school and numerous
native villages with close to 3,000 indigenous people from North
America and other parts of the world.
The St. Louis anthropological exhibitions, according
to the U.S. National Museums annual report, were designed
to illustrate the higher culture of the Native American peoples
as shown in their arts and industries. The fairs central
topic of focus, however,industrial and technological progresscreated
a symbolic contrast. Scholars Nancy J. Parezo and Don D. Fowler
explore in depth the anthropologic exhibitions of the Louisiana
Purchase Exhibition and the ideas on race that it promulgated. According
to their book Anthropology
Goes to the Fair: The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, the
displays helped to foster a divide between the natives as representatives
of so-called primitive societies, and the fairs
urban, middle and upper class, Euro-American audiences, as emblematic
of civilized Americans.
1904 accession card shows the purchase price and other information,
but does not mention any names of the individuals. (NMNH)
In 2014, Latino artist Ken
Gonzales-Day, while studying on a Smithsonian Artist Research
Fellowship, was exploring the anthropology collections at the Smithsonians
National Museum of Natural
History and came across Lemons 116-year-old sculpture
of Shonke Mon-thi^.
Gonzales-Days research and the recent acquisition of one
of the artists photographs into the collections of the Smithsonians
National Portrait Gallery represents a new approach to bringing
acknowledgment and honor to one of the most decorated of Osage warriors
and helps the museum to present a more inclusive view of American
history. The story of how it happened and the process involved is
a fascinating one.
The Story of Shonke Mon-thi^
When I first saw Shonke Mon-thi^ s bust, says
Gonzales-Day, I felt certain he was a man of importance. He
had been painted with great care and unlike some other works in
the collection, his name appeared on the plinth. The polychrome
bust depicts an elder man with a stern expression; his hair is shaved
on the sides while locks fall to his neck. The sculpture is chipped
at various places, the white plaster breaking through the subjects
brown skin evokes the age of the object itself.
I thought perhaps it was part of a group of works I had been
searching for, that had been displayed as part of the Louisiana
Purchase International Exposition, says Gonzales-Day.
It was. So not only was he a man of importance to his people,
his likeness was also presented to exposition goers, and as such,
he clearly represented a missing piece from the history of racial
formation in the United States.
I first saw Shonke Mon-thi^ s bust, says artist
Ken Gonzales-Day (above), I felt certain he was a man
of importance. He had been painted with great care and unlike
some other works in the collection, his name appeared on the
For more than a decade, Gonzales-Day has traveled to museums around
the world to photograph both art and ethnographical objects as part
of his project Profiled (2008present), examining and studying
the sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant racial biases in the
sculptural representation of white bodies and bodies of color. His
search has taken him to such renowned collections as LÉcole
des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Bode Museum in Berlin, Tokyo National Museum,
Museo de Nacional de Arte de Mexico City, and The J. Paul Getty
During his 2014 fellowship, the artist had dedicated much of his
time to researching and photographing sculptures of Native Americans
in several Smithsonian museum collections. I wanted to explore
how Native Americans were represented in our national museums. I
was searching for forgotten histories and I continue to believe
that uncovering and photographing historically forgotten works can
allow us to see the past in new ways. My artistic approach borrows
from restorative justice practices where punishment is replaced
with reconciliation and restitution to create works that promote
dialog, recover history and contribute to the public discourse on
the history of racial formation.
Historic portrait sculptures of Native Americans, he concluded,
are rare at the National Portrait Gallery. Native individuals, Gonzales-Day
noted, are mainly portrayed in lithographs and engravings made by
European and Anglo-American artists since the 17th century and printed
for wide dissemination, but seldomly are they portrayed in the medium
of sculpture, which is often associated with social prominence and
At the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the artist also noted that
many sculptural depictions of Native Americans within that museums
collection are allegorical. But Gonzales-Day found that the largest
number of sculptures representing specific Native American individuals
are housed in the Natural History Museums collection. These
artifacts frequently take the form of life masks, heads and busts
made out of plaster, many of which were collected by the Smithsonians
first anthropologists and ethnologists at the turn of the 20th century.
Originally created to illustrate the different human types,
these sculptures served as tools to depict racial differences based
on the physical anthropology research methodologies of the daywhich
have since been debunked by anthropologists arguing for an understanding
of the social constructions of race. As manifestations of this earlier
history of the study of race as a biological category, however,
these objects still have powerful impact on our thinking today.
Gonzales-Days photographs of many of these sculptures were
accompanied by an effort to resurface the details of the lives of
these individuals. He pored over collections files, census records
and archives in an effort to piece together their life-stories.
The artist came to recognize that these sculptures were part of
the Smithsonians institutional history and that in a sense,
their presence at the Natural History Museum was a counterbalance
to their absence at the Portrait Gallery.
I joined the artist in his effort to research the individuals they
represented. The process was challenging, especially given the fact
that many indigenous names at the turn of the 20th century had no
standardized spellings. The base of the bust identifies the man
as Shoñ-ke-mã-lo, but alternate spellings also included
Shunkahmolah or Shon-ge-mon-in. Thus, we learned that sometimes
switching an o for a u or adding a hyphen
between syllables could yield information that might otherwise have
Under the guidance of the Natural History Museums curator
of North American ethnology Gwyneira
Isaac and research collaborator Larry Taylor, I contacted the
Tribal Historic Preservation Offices and the tribal museums of each
community represented in Gonzales-Days photographs. During
my conversations, I provided respondents with information about
the artists project, shared images of relevant works, and
invited individuals to help piece together the stories of the sitters
from their communities.
Following the museums protocol for these collaborations,
I also tried to locate the living descendants of the individuals.
Our contact with the Nations yielded meaningful exchanges that pointed
to how contemporary readings of these anthropological busts, accompanied
by conversations with communities and descendants, can help address
historical trauma and erasure, and bring overdue recognition to
The process of conversations with Native communities, including
the Osage, Pawnee, Seneca, Lakota Sioux and the Mandan, Hidatsa
and Arikara Nation, culminated with an exhibition
in 2018-2019 that showed Gonzales-Days work along with the
revealing works of the artist Titus
A case in point was the outcome of our research around the portrait
of Shonke Mon-thi^. After months of looking for clues by cross-referencing
sources with different spellings, we finally understood the stature
of the sitter in his community and his contributions to the United
Shonke Mon-thi^ is often referred to as Shunkahmolah,
his birth date is unknown, his death date is believed to be around
1919. He was a spiritual and political leader of the Osage Nation
and won honors during an attack on Confederate forces in 1863. By
the time of his death, Shonke Mon-thi^ was one of three living men
who had earned all 13 o-don, or war honors, given unanimously by
his nation. In addition, he assisted Smithsonian anthropologist
Francis La Flesche,
a member of the Omaha Tribe, in documenting Osage religious rites.
The details of the subjects life, including his participation
in the Osage delegation to Washington, D.C., in 1904, made clear
his historical significance. The Portrait Gallerys curatorial
committee agreed with this conclusion, so I reached out to representatives
of the Osage Nation and asked if they would support the Portrait
Gallerys acquisition of Gonzales-Days related photograph.
I subsequently made contact with Steven Pratt, great grandson of
Shunkahmolah, who received the idea enthusiastically and provided
additional details on the biography of his great grandfather. I
learned that Shonke Mon-thi^ (Walking Dog) earned his
name for his remarkable ability to run long distances carrying messages
between Osage chiefs. Anglo-Americans, unable to pronounce his name,
had started calling him Shunkamolah.
Pratt supported the acquisition but asked that the title of the
sculpture be changed to his great grandfathers original name.
With the approval of the Osage and the Traditional Cultural Advisors
Committee, as well as that of the National Portrait Gallerys
Board of Commissioners, Gonzales-Days photograph of the Portrait
of Shonke Mon-thi^ entered the museums collections this past
summer. To complete the circle, Gonzales-Day gifted a print of the
photograph to Steven Pratt, as a gesture of respect for the living
legacy of his ancestor.
Once the process of acquisition had ended, I could not help but
marvel at the remarkable turn of events this acquisition embodied.
A major political and spiritual Osage leader and warrior had claimed
his rightful place in the nations Portrait Gallery.
Thanks to the vision of one contemporary artist, who through his
camera lens reframed an anthropological bust as a memorializing
portrait, and after the constructive dialogue between Native stakeholders
and museum professionals, Shonke Mon-thi^s visual biography
now resides in a national collection dedicated to the individuals
who have shaped Americas history and culture.
I would like to thank Gwyneira
Isaac, curator of North American Ethnology at the National Museum
of Natural History, for her valuable insight into the history of
anthropological busts, casts and the development of theories on
race. Thanks as well to Larry Taylor, a pivotal figure in the rediscovery
of Native American face casts in museum collections, for sharing
his knowledge of Shonke Mon-thi^ and the sculptures known as the
"Osage Ten." Finally, my deep gratitude goes to Steven
Pratt, the great grandson of Shonke Mon-thi^, Andrea Hunter, director
of the Osage Tribal Historic Preservation Office, and the Traditional
Cultural Advisors, for their counsel and trust in the process of
representing Shonke Mon-thi^ at the National Portrait Gallery.
Taína Caragol is curator of painting, sculpture and Latinx
art and history at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.