Richard 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 (Governor’s) 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.
Published May 7, 2017
CHEYENNE, OKLAHOMA – 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 Cheyenne’s winter encampment.
Thomas said the trip is also intended to pay tribute to all tribes whose territory embraces the Washita’s 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 Territory.
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, he’ll walk the stream, pulling the kayak in as little as 2 inches of water.
“I’m not too worried about the trip. If a snake wants to get in the kayak it wouldn’t have much trouble,” he said with a big laugh. “Add to that the amount of medicine I take to stay alive and I’m 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. I’m 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 (Governor’s) Mansion to refurbish and restore antique furniture and décor enjoyed by Oklahoma’s 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 I’ll 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. It’s my being. I am ‘Indian enough’ and this trip reaffirms it for me,” he stated matter-of-factly.
“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 I’m 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 can’t 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.
“It’s 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. I’m sure others have canoed some of it. I’m not sure anyone has tackled it from Roger Mills County to Tishomingo,” he said.
The earth’s 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.