WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – The Keeper of the Plains has been the centerpiece of Wichita iconography and art since it was first erected in 1974. The 44-foot tall sculpture depicts a Native American man surveying the cityscape from on high, where the Little and Big Arkansas meet. The five ton COR-TEN statue serves as the crown jewel of Sedgwick County.
The man behind the larger than life figure, the late Kiowa-Comanche artist Black Bear Bosin, is not to be diminished himself. Though the Keeper of the Plains is the artists’ only sculpture, Bosin was a more than prolific painter and sketch artist.
“Of course, he did the Keeper of the Plains, the iconic symbol of Wichita now,” said Rod Pocowatchit, Filmmaker & Wichita Eagle columnist. “I think he was more well known elsewhere for his paintings.”
Between the late 1950s through the early 1970s, Blackbear Bosin created innumerable amounts of artwork in both sketch and large format paintings.
Blackbear sold his works at art shows through the Oklahoma and Kansas territories and did many commissions for private companies and government. Many of his completed works can be seen in museums nationally and internationally.
“They sort of have a mysticism to them I think really broadened his artwork to artists and other groups,” said Pocowatchit.
BIRTH OF AN ARTIST
Bosin was born in Anadarko, Oklahoma to a Kiowa father and Comanche mother in June of 1921 as Francis Blackbear Bosin. “Blackbear” was given to Bosin by his parents, honoring the boys’ grandfather. His Kiowa name was Tsate Kongia. The young man grew up in what he referred to fondly as Indian Country, where native culture and tribal heritage were still strong as America sought to assimilate indigenous culture.
This rift between the rich traditions and history of his culture faced with the changing world in front of him would be a theme represented in much of Bosin’s art. He referred to this dilemma as “Walking in Two Worlds”; that of tribal culture pitted against a world that would seek to erase that identity.
To deal with these polarizing circumstances, Bosin looked to his pencils and sketchpads for solace. Bosin often used drawing and art to distract himself from tensions at school.
Mr. Bosin found himself relocated to Wichita near the end of the 1940s, as economic opportunities in Depression-era Anadarko were limited. This move to Wichita is when Bosin began to develop and hone his, now famous, painting style.
Moving into adulthood, Bosin’s talent for drawing would expand to canvas, and that love for Indian Country would become a love for Wichita also.
Blackbear would weave a unique aesthetic that combined the Southern Plains flat style of painting with a more modern style of surrealism, brought to life by Bosin’s favorite medium, gouache, an opaque watercolor paint.
THE KEEPER OF THE PLAINS
His most hallowed work would come to him in 1968 in the form of a sculpture. Bosin’s skill as a self-taught artist seemed so limitless, and the confidence in his work so strong, he was offered the opportunity to design the “Great Indian,” a bicentennial project proposed by Kansas Gas & Electric, that later became Westar Energy, looking to include native heritage as a theme for their private park. The drawing was completed that year and the construction, six years later.
“I think he was using his culture to express his love for the city, his love for the people, his area, his background, his history, and his tribe. I think that all seems to culminate in that one piece of work,” said Pocowatchit.
Constructed by Tom Washburn of Architectural Metal Products, the sculpture took 12 welders known as the “Dirty Dozen” three months to cut and weld the COR-TEN weathering steel that would become the Keeper in time for its dedication on May 18, 1974.
Upon completion, the statue was erected just west of the Mid-America All- Indian Center in a small valley at the confluence of the two Arkansas rivers. Admiration for the project was instant.
“Even before we created the plaza, the Keeper of the Plains was a sacred symbol of Wichita and people really enjoyed it and relished it,” said Sonia Greteman, Owner and Creative Director of the Greteman Group, part of the design team for the project. “But I think changing its location and surrounding it with this beautiful outdoor community space, not only elevated it but also made it accessible.”
REDEDICATING THE KEEPER
Almost 30 years later, and about 10 years after Bosin’s passing in 1980, talks began to give the Keeper a facelift. In 1999, a beautification project came to fruition, and the Keeper of the Plains would be restored, moved and elevated a short distance away.
“The Keeper was kind of down in the river, hidden with all these trees. You couldn’t see him at all. The whole area was covered with trash. It had a chain-link fence. It just needed some new energy, a new life,” Greteman said.
The Great Indian would see a new day, and more of the city in 2007 when the project was completed.
The Keeper of the Plains now stands atop a 30 foot promontory, surrounded with an outdoor exhibit describing the way of life of Plains Indians and accented by two bow-and-arrow like footbridges over the water. The direction of the statue was even corrected to face more easterly to fully convey Bosin’s original vision.
Years following, the prominence of The Keeper would only expand as the Keeper Plaza grew in popularity and patronage. The location has become a go-to destination for Wichita sightseers, locals out for a walk, date night, family night, or place for quiet personal reflection.
“It represents Wichita now. I think, perhaps, the attraction to the piece itself is that the statue is standing very tall and very proud — arms outreached to the sky” said Rod Pocowatchit. “It makes you feel good when you see it. There’s a sort of proudness to it. The confluence of the two rivers. It’s just a beautiful place to be. That proudness became what Wichita is proud of.”
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