Thomas poses in his Oklahoma City workshop in 2014 with an
18th century French barn door he refurbished into a breakfast
table for Friends of the (Governors) Mansion. The master
craftsman is tackling a 322-mile journey down the Washita
River Friday, May 5, before taking part in the Fourth Annual
Artesian Arts Festival in Sulphur, Oklahoma, May 27.
CHEYENNE, OK Chickasaw master craftsman and artist Richard
Thomas plans to kayak more than 320 miles down the Washita River
to honor the memory of Southern Cheyenne tribal leader Black Kettle,
who died near here 149 years ago.
Black Kettle lost his life in the 1868 Battle of the Washita,
which some historians characterize as a massacre, as George Armstrong
Custer led his men in a daybreak attack on the Cheyennes winter
Thomas said the trip is also intended to pay tribute to all
tribes whose territory embraces the Washitas muddy meanderings
through western, central and southern Oklahoma.
He plans to slip his personally-outfitted kayak into the stream
Friday, May 5 at the Black Kettle National Grasslands. The Washita
kisses the Texas Panhandle on the west then crisscrosses several
tribal nations as it flows southeasterly through what was once Indian
LET IT RAIN
Timing is key for Thomas.
Thomas believes spring rains will have swelled the Washita.
His kayak, loaded with potable water, jerky, nutrition bars and
other provisions, rides low in the water. Thomas must have 2 feet
of water flowing at Black Kettle. Otherwise, hell walk the
stream, pulling the kayak in as little as 2 inches of water.
Im not too worried about the trip. If a snake wants
to get in the kayak it wouldnt have much trouble, he
said with a big laugh. Add to that the amount of medicine
I take to stay alive and Im taking about all I can,
he notes with self-deprecating humor.
At 57, Thomas admits age is a concern. I am physically
able to do this now. Im not sure if that will be true a year
from now or two years from now.
He wishes to experience the adventure deliberately.
Thomas will assess the health of the Washita River
through water sampling. He intends to document sightings of wildlife,
observe thriving and distressed species of trees and plants. He
will take account of all living creatures he sees. He intends to
share his information with officials and the tribes.
I am not a scientist, but I can observe and take samples.
For more than 30 years, Thomas has earned his living as a master
woodworker and refinisher. He is regularly employed by the Friends
of the (Governors) Mansion to refurbish and restore antique
furniture and décor enjoyed by Oklahomas governors.
Regular customers bring him antique treasures for his healing touch.
He also is an artist who specializes in traditional and decorative
weapons, such as bows, arrows, squirrel and rabbit sticks, tomahawks
and other items. He will show his talent at the May 27 Artesian
Arts Festival in Sulphur, Oklahoma.
I am pretty sure Ill be tired, bug-bitten and beat
up when the Artesian Arts Festival gets underway a few days after
my trip, but I will have plenty of stories to tell, he said
with a laugh.
His Chickasaw heritage is of prime importance to him.
Yes, I look like a European and my hair is bleached gray,
he jokes. One reason for the trip is to show I am a proud
Native American, Thomas said. As I get older, I realize
it is more than merely a part of me. Its my being. I am Indian
enough and this trip reaffirms it for me, he stated
I have written tribes up and down the Washita asking them
to join in my journey, Thomas said. Some tribes will
travel with me while Im in their territory. I have written
sheriffs and game wardens and federal land managers who are excited
about the trip. The one thing I am concerned about is having permission
to camp on private property.
Water in the Washita is managed by the state and embarking upon
a trip is legally permissible. However, once landfall is made on
either bank, private ownership comes into play. Also, if Thomas
has to portage the kayak overland, technically he may be trespassing.
I will camp on land managed by the federal government
at every opportunity, but I cant make the entire 322-mile
trip without stopping on private property. Of course I will ask
permission, he said.
Thomas adventure is not without strenuous work
even before he begins paddling.
Letters to tribes, county commissioners, the Corps of Engineers,
state of Oklahoma, game rangers, national park officials and countless
others were necessary to announce his 10-day journey on the Washita.
Its been an experience, but it is worth it. I have
lots of people who are excited to see this happen, Thomas
said. Gary Roller, who is a game warden in Rogers Mills County,
told me the last time anyone has traversed the Washita was 75 years
ago. Im sure others have canoed some of it. Im not sure
anyone has tackled it from Roger Mills County to Tishomingo,
The earths elevation will aid Thomas on the trip. At Cheyenne,
elevation is 1,933 feet above sea level. When he reaches Tishomingo,
it will be 670 feet. That is a drop of 1,263 feet which is
an average of about 3 inches per mile, Thomas said.