Chase Kahwinhut Earles had been making Caddo pottery for more than a decade before the Dallas Museum of Art acquired one of his pieces, a 4-foot long sculpture titled Batah Kuhuh: Alligator Gar Fish Effigy Bottle.
“It was really overwhelming,” Earles said in a phone interview. “It legitimized my work as a representative of my Caddo people. It has legitimized me as an artist that my work is good enough to be in these prestigious museums.”
When the 45-year-old Oklahoma artist learned that his work was one of four objects destroyed in a break-in at the DMA on June 1, he was devastated. Not only for himself, but also for his tribe.
“It was a pivotal piece in my career,” said Earles, the only living artist whose work was vandalized. “To be one of the first caddos to have a piece in such a large museum was a big deal and for it to be destroyed was a blow not only to me but also to my tribe and to the representation of our culture. ”
“What immediately made me more than hurt was that we wouldn’t have a piece in a museum anymore,” Earles added.
The ceramics acquired by the DMA in 2020 were a showpiece of the exhibition “Spirit Lodge: Mississippian Art from Spiro” when 21-year-old Brian Hernandez threw it to the ground on June 1, police said, smashing it into pieces in a destructive rampage that also damaged three ancient Greek ceramics.
Earles has exhibited other works in Spirit Lodge — a traveling exhibit of ancient and contemporary works by members and descendants of the Native Americans known as Mississippi—but the Alligator Gar was the only sculpture in the DMA’s permanent collection.
“It’s just a rare achievement in the life of an artist,” said Earles, whose work is also in the collections of other museums, including the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
Michelle Rich, associate curator of the Arts of the Americas at the DMA, said she planned to display the alligator shrimp at the Arts of the Americas galleries on the fourth floor after the conclusion of the Spirit Lodge exhibit in August. Rich, who joined the DMA in 2018, said Earles’ piece is her second acquisition for the museum.
“We really want to make sure that Indigenous artists from across America are represented in the collection,” she said, “and I think making sure that we start here in our own region is a really strong statement.”
The six-month process of making the piece, Earles said, was tedious because he forged it “using the same methods our tribe would have used around AD 800.” He dug clay from the Red River and added crushed freshwater mussel shells as Temper to strengthen the material. After sculpting the piece, he polished it by hand – rubbing a river stone across the surface to make it shiny – and used an open campfire as a kiln. The final step was to hand engrave the outside of the hollow sculpture with geometric patterns.
“Caddo pottery is actually as prolific and as grand a tradition as any of the tribes in North America, but not many people know about it,” Earles said. “My whole goal and statement as a Caddo artist is to bring our pottery tradition back to light.”
Pottery was a prominent art form among the tribe now based in Binger, Oklahoma, for over a thousand years, according to the Texas Historical Commission. Caddo ceramics remain so unique, the commission noted, that they are “the most important evidence for identifying and dating Caddo sites”.
In its heyday, the Caddo pottery tradition included both decorative and utilitarian styles. Caddo effigies, or sculptural depictions of animals, are a common design, Earles said. Other ceramics were used for everyday purposes such as kitchenware. Eventually, Earles said, nearly all pottery ended up as funerary goods, interred during burial rites. “Pottery and caddos are inseparable,” Earles said.
Earles is one of the few who continue to practice these ancestral pottery traditions, which began to disappear as colonization supplanted the Caddo tribe. The ingrained techniques Earles uses to create his pottery connect him to ancestral rituals, but they also result in extremely fragile pottery. If a low-fired piece like his effigy bottle breaks, bits of it can be pulverized into dust, he said, making it much harder to put back together, even for museum protectors.
Earles said he had little confidence that the piece could be faithfully reconstructed. “I mean,” he said, “the soul of the structure is gone.”
The DMA’s interim chief restorer, Fran Baas, said last month the restoration team was “optimistic” about repairing all the damaged objects. A list of conservation experts said fragments can be reassembled in most cases with enough intervention.
But it’s the interventions that worry Earles.
“I hope they will come to me for advice because I don’t think many people know much about Native American pottery,” he said. “In the end, I don’t want them to reproduce or fix something that looks completely different than what I gave them or that represents me — because it still represents me and my tribe.”
The DMA declined to give details about the extent of the damage to the imaging bottle, but said in a statement that it “has a history of working with living artists on restoration and recognizes that option as a standard of best practice where appropriate.”
Another concern of Earles is that a reconstructed piece would resemble an ancient artifact “unearthed from a grave” rather than a contemporary work of art – an illusion he said reinforces the stereotype of Native Americans as prehistoric people that might be lacking in modern society. About 7,000 people are currently enrolled in the Caddo Nation, a federally recognized tribe.
While a contemporary piece “shows that our tribe is still here and that we’re still living people and still producing vibrant and relevant art,” Earles said, only showing pieces that appear outdated could send the wrong message . The DMA has several other Caddo ceramics in its permanent collection, but they are all very old.
Earles said he would prefer the museum to commission a new piece. If so, he wouldn’t try to replicate the damaged sculpture — “every piece I make has to have real meaning and a heart behind it,” he said — but maybe a different alligator-gar, an animal that lives in native to the home of the Caddo. He recently wrote a children’s book about the fish that he hopes to publish, so each new play can have “more storytelling elements,” he said.
According to the DMA in its statement, the commissioning of a new piece cannot be ruled out. “Should it be determined that the piece is not salvageable, ordering an additional piece is a very strong and promising option,” the museum said. “We were so proud to present a piece by Kahwinhut Earles and the culture it represents. We look forward to ensuring that Kahwinhut Earles remains part of the DMA community.”
Rich also said she would “love to give the public another opportunity to see his work.”
“I want to show his best self,” she said. “I want to make sure that in our collection we represent each artist at their most talented and best moments.”
Should the DMA acquire another of his sculptures, Earles said he would have no concerns about their safety, despite ongoing concerns about the museum’s security. His main goal, he said, is to ensure the public “can still see what a caddo pot looks like.”
“I’m angry. I’m sad. It hurts,” he said. “I have hope that one way or another it will be fixed and that I will still have a place in the museum.”