In The Spotlight

Kiowa Black Leggings:
Through the Lens of Lester Harragarra

Lester Harragarra (Otoe-Missouria/Kiowa)A new photography exhibit featuring award-winning Otoe-Missouria/Kiowa photographer Lester Harragarra is on view through March 31 at the Red Earth Art Center in downtown Oklahoma City. Kiowa Black Leggings: Through the lens of Lester Harragarrafeatures photographs of the Kiowa Black Leggings Warrior Society as seen through the camera of the award-winning Yukon, OK photographer. 

Red Earth Art Center 'In the Spotlight' series

For generations war veterans have held the highest place of respect among the Kiowa people of Oklahoma.  Every October the Kiowa Tribe conducts ceremonies to honor their veterans in the small southwest Oklahoma town of Anadarko – the home of their tribal headquarters. The special ceremonies are the tribe’s way to honor and pay respect to their warriors.

Robert Short, Bill Ware and Blas Preciado dance in the Black Leggings Warrior Society CeremonialThrough the years, military service provided by Kiowa veterans has changed for members of the Black Leggings Warrior Society - from early day conflicts with the US Cavalry and enemy tribes to more recent combats in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, the Kiowa veterans are still soldiers with dual citizenships. Protecting their land, protecting their people; and, protecting their country – the United States of America.

To be inducted into the Black Leggings Warrior Society one must be a member of the Kiowa Tribe. The legacy of these warrior participants stretches back centuries through the oral histories of their tribe. Membership is not open to everyone - for the Black Leggings are an exclusive tribal military group open only to those veterans extended an invitation to join.

Members of this exclusive society share time honored regalia including a roach headdress of porcupine quills, royal red capes, beaded breastplates and black leggings covered by colorful loincloths. The regalia worn by members of the Society have changed very little since the 1870s, when Kiowa customs were first documented. The red capes pay tribute to a member who took a similar cape off a Mexican officer during a long ago raid. Since then members have worn red capes to honor wartime exploits.

The grandeur of the regalia combined with the pomp and circumstance of the centuries old ceremonies are the foundation for the color photography featured in the new Red Earth Art Center exhibition.

For over a decade, Lester Harragarra has been granted permission by the Society to capture photographs depicting the pageantry of the ceremonial dances held in honor of the tribe’s veterans. He estimates that through the years he has taken over 50,000 images of the Kiowa war veterans.

His interest in photography began when he received his first camera from his aunt for his eighth birthday. His first photos were taken of family and friends; but later, as an engineering student at the University of New Mexico he purchased a 35 mm camera and spent hours in the darkroom developing and processing film.

Harragarra, who has been a juried artist in the annual Red Earth Festival since 2011, is an enrolled member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and a descendent of the Kiowa Tribe. His father, the late Kenneth Harragarra, was a World War II veteran and Tribal Chairman of the Otoe-Missouria.

His paternal grandparents were Moses and Mary Harragarra. His grandfather Moses was one of the last hereditary chiefs of the Otoe-Missouria and in 1943, his grandmother initiated the first All American Indian War Mothers Chapter in America. On his Kiowa side, his roots are from his mother, Delores Toyebo Harragarra. In 1951, Delores was one of the first Kiowas to graduate from the University of Oklahoma.

Harragarra has been referred to as a “powwow photographer,” and he is very conscious of the rules of etiquette that pertain to the powwow arena. He is valued in the Native American dance community for his respectful ways and the beautiful images he captures through his lens. Time honored tradition dictates that it is always best to ask a dancer’s permission before taking a photograph. Harragarra believes his role as a photographer is to preserve the cultures of his family and their tribes for many years. He considers his photographs contributions to his culture.

While he is currently employed full time by the Otoe Missouria Development Authority, he hopes someday to become a full time photographer. Until then he is happy giving away his photographs to those who fill his lens.