Diana Fletcher of the Kiowa tribe sits protected within the University of Oklahoma's Western History Collection Library. The photograph preserving her image shows signs of age—curled and frayed edges, dappled discoloration—but her face is strongly in focus and as bold as the day it was printed.
Diana's presence is what Marianne Gendron says attracted her to to the photo in William L. Katz' book, Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. Gendron discovered the book online after seeking out more information about the 1,600 Black Cherokees who participated in the Trail of Tears—the brutal forced march of 60,000 Native Americans and African-Americans from the South to "Indian Territory" across the Mississippi River in Oklahoma and Arkansas in 1838.
Gendron, a historical depiction artist, had often painted portraits of African-Americans as freemen, homesteaders, family members, artists and poets. Her own roots (her mother was an African-American jazz singer and her father a French-Canadian Huron Indian) made the subject of Black Indians especially appealing to her, she says, as did the relative obscurity of the subject. Gendron decided to lift Diana Fletcher of Kiowa from the pages of Black Indians and bring her back to life on canvas, as seen on the cover of this week's Alibi.
"I saw something of myself in her," Gendron says. "And there was something in her expression ... an acceptance of who she was. She didn't seem conflicted. She had a sense of self-identity and I think that's missing a lot from people of mixed heritage."
Gendron's portrait of Diana Fletcher is one of many pieces hanging in the South Broadway Cultural Center for the African-American Artist Guild show Soul Expressions. (See this week's Art Section for the review.) Beyond Diana's status as a Black Indian from the Kiowa tribe, Gendron says she knows nothing about the stoic women in her portrait. Katz' book only includes her photo and name without any background information. Gendron contacted the historian via e-mail to inquire about Diana, but Katz' reply indicated he only knew the whereabouts of the photograph, the University of Oklahoma, and no more.
Lacy Kelly from the Western History Collection Photo Lab says the library has no additional information about Diana, either. No date, no biography, no details of its origins—just her name and tribal affiliation. Diana may be found within the writings held at the Western History Collection, but there's no historical account the library could provide.
The search for Diana Fletcher led Gendron to the Web—maybe someone, somewhere out there knew about Diana or her relatives. Gendron found a website, Outlawwomen.com, and a page dedicated to Diana Fletcher. The site says Diana was the daughter of a runaway slave who'd taken refuge with the Seminole Indians in Florida. He married a Seminole women, Diana's mother, who died on The Trail of Tears. Diana attended the Hampton Institute in Virginia, a college originally opened for Black students and later opened to Native Americans, and maintained her Black Indian heritage despite pressure to repress it from American society.
The website does not cite the information source, but giving Diana a story—real or otherwise—adds to the power of her photograph. Nearly all African-Americans have a branch of Native American in their family tree, according to Katz in Black Indians, so it's impossible to know how many other Black Indians have a story like Diana's. One thing is certain: Diana Fletcher of Kiowa lives on in Gendron's painting and at the University of Oklahoma's Western History Collection Library, where generations of Americans can continue to piece together our history.