The Belle of the Reservation

03 January 2014


Portrait of Gi-aum-e by Burbank

Gi-aum-e Hon-o-me-tah looks cosy wrapped up in her Kiowa blanket. Her cheeks are redder than her lips thanks to traditional face paint, and her eyes stare calmly into yours. Elbridge A. Burbank had a talent for capturing eyes; in his portraits of elderly chiefs he conveys solemnness and defiance, but with Gi-aum-e the impression is altogether different. Young and beautiful, her eyes look to the future, not the past.

Gi-aum-e was the niece of Haw-gone (Silver Horn), a famed Kiowa artist, and the daughter of a Kiowa chief. In his memoir (Among the Indians, 1944) Burbank describes her as an intelligent girl with good English who was considered “the belle of the reservation.” She was sixteen when Burbank painted her in the 1890s, and although she appears calm in her portrait she didn't speak a word during the first week of posing out of pure bashfulness. “When she finally did become acquainted, she became quite talkative,” Burbank wrote.

When the officers at Fort Sill held a dance Burbank invited Gi-aum-e and her friend Ton-had-dle. During the dance he caught them laughing together in a corner of the room: “They explained naively that they were laughing because they thought it so funny for one girl to dance with so many different men. They also felt that this was very improper.”

Burbank tells another amusing story (Famous War Chiefs I Have Known and Painted, 1910) about when his lay figure – an artist’s mannequin – arrived from Chicago. The Kiowa men would “take it from the pedestal and dance around the room with it,” while the two girls would dress it in Kiowa clothes, “paint the face and place it on a chair before a window and then go outside and look up and laugh at it.”

Burbank became good friends with Gi-aum-e and he corresponded with her for several years after leaving the reservation. Their correspondence ended abruptly however, when she failed to reply to one his letters. When he next returned to Fort Sill he was shocked to learn that she had died suddenly. His memoir offers no cause of death.

Reflecting on the finished portrait, which features in our upcoming resource American Indian Histories and Cultures, Burbank wrote: "I never painted a more beautiful picture in my life.” Viewed from a distance of well over a hundred years, Gi-aum-e is still the belle of the reservation.

Image © The Newberry Library, Chicago. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

About the Author

Thomas Mellors

I started working as Editorial Assistant at Adam Matthew in March 2013. To date I have worked on Popular Culture in Britain and America II and American Indian Histories and Cultures. My current project is American Consumer Culture, 1935-1965. My interests lie in politics and cultural history.