Q&A with Bob Haozous

A Family's Legacy


Assistant Entertainment Editor

Great injustices against an entire people do not happen in a vacuum: At some point, a witness or descendant of the tragedy arrives to reclaim or restate a lost history, to rebuild a mythology or ask probing, uncomfortable questions. The unintended legacy of the U.S. government's 27-year internment of the Apache tribe was the proud artistic voice of the Houser/Haozous family, led by the late Allan Houser and continued in sharply contrasting tones by his sons, Bob and Phillip Haozous.

When the 35-year-long Apache Wars ended in 1886 with the surrender of Geronimo, the tribe was forcibly moved to reservations in Alabama and Florida before reaching Fort Sill in 1894. The Warm Springs Chiricahua Apaches were held as prisoners of war for 27 years. Sam Haozous, a grandson of Apache chief Mangas Coloradas, was the father of Allan Houser, the first Chiricahua Apache child born out of captivity.

“This happened in just the last century — it wasn't something that happened 400 years ago,” said Bryan Beasley, director of the recent documentary on the Houser family, “Unconquered.” “Once Geronimo died and all those old warriors had passed away, there was no reason for the children to be paying for the sins of the father. When Sam Haozous was taken into custody, he was 14 years old. When he got out, he was a middle-aged man.”

Learning His Trade

Houser left Oklahoma at age 20 to study at the Santa Fe Indian School under Dorothy Dunn, who taught American Indian students to paint in styles that referenced their tribal heritages. Houser quickly transcended much of the art generated from the school, creating paintings with unusual perspective, dimension and energy. He later moved into sculpture, developing a defining style of lyrical, curvilinear expression and grace. His sculptures such as “As Long As the Waters Flow,” now in its 20th year on display at the State Capitol, and “A Safe Return” and “The Future,” currently on display at the Oklahoma History Center, offer a sense of deep history, pride and intergenerational love and dependence among families in his tribe.

Like Father, Like Sons

Like Allan Houser, who as a child would sketch scenes on lined school paper or carve his mother's bars of soap into figurines, Bob and Phillip Haozous, who both readopted the family's ancestral name, took to art as a natural progression. But the brothers took wildly different paths. Phillip Haozous' work often reflects or evokes the sensuous curves and themes of grace and love in his father's sculptures, while Bob Haozous' mixed-media sculpture are jagged, questioning, confrontational statements on his tribe, on society and the world stage.

“What he does with his art is he's asking for a response from the viewer,” said Bob Blackburn, director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, who oversaw the Oklahoma History Center's current exhibit, “Unconquered: Allan Houser and the Legacy of One Apache Family.”

“I've heard people in an art gallery come up to him and say, ‘Oh Bob, I sense your anger,'” Blackburn said. “And he says, ‘That's not my anger. If you see anger in it, it must be you understanding that someone should be angry.'”

Bob Haozous began his artistic career in the 1970s. His work often takes on political messages about his tribe or the general state of humanity. “Wire Face” features the head of an American Indian man fully encased in barbed wire. “Apache Holocaust” is a statement on his tribe's treatment during those 27 years of captivity.

Phillip Haozous began most of his sculpting later, following his father's death in 1994. Working in the abstract modernism vein that prevailed in much of Allan Houser's work, Phillip Haozous' sculptures are lyrical meditations on nature, history and emotion: “Great Spirit Buffalo II,” on display at Oklahoma History Center, depicts a bison as half photorealistic, half impressionistic — bushy fur on one side, modern curves and angles on the other. “Machu Picchu III,” its form and structure based on cracks that appear in the ancient Peruvian city's walls, depicts two girls discussing boys.

While the form and curves of Phillip Haozous' work can recall his father's work, the artist said he does not intend to actively evoke that of Allan Houser.

“I don't want to copy him,” he said in the documentary “Unconquered.” “I want to be me and look towards the future for my design.”

'Essence of our Tribe'

That future is something constantly on Bob Haozous' mind. He hopes to see his tribe, the Warm Springs Chiricahua Apaches, live on and transcend its troubled history. But much like his art, which is so actively different from his father's, the future must be self-determined, a conscious break.

“We are as valid as Geronimo or Mangas Coloradas or all those people before, but we have to define ourselves,” Bob Haozous said in the Beasley documentary. “But more important, if we define ourselves by Western standards, then we are kidding ourselves, we're romanticizing ourselves. What we have to do is find the essence of our tribe, the philosophical essence that made us Apache, because that is what will carry us into the future.”