WICHITA, Kan. (KAKE) - This Saturday, May 18, 2024, marks the Keeper of the Plains' 50th birthday. But the idea of a statue of an Indian in the Keeper's spot has been around for a lot longer than 50 years.

Wichita artist John Noble first suggested in 1913 that the city should erect a statue of a Wichita Indian Chief where the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers meet.

Then, in 1968, Kansas Gas and Electric, KG&E, (later to become Westar and then Evergy) proposed the Great Indian sculpture as part of a project to celebrate the nation's 200th birthday or bicentennial.

At KG&E's request, Kiowa-Comanche artist Blackbear Bosin, primarily a painter, came up with the concept for the statue that same year. He worked with KG&E as well as Architectural Metal Products to turn his sketches into a 44-foot tall reality. He gifted the sculpture to the City of Wichita in 1974. It was the only sculpture Bosin ever created.

While the entire City of Wichita quickly adopted the Keeper of the Plains as a symbol, for the Native American community it's meaning went much deeper. 


His seat at the confluence of the two rivers is a traditionally sacred space where tribes would gather annually, long before colonists settled the area.

Bosin said of his design, "There was a feeling I wanted to convey, and of course the choice of location had a lot to do with it."

Designed as a tribute to the first inhabitants of Wichita, Bosin said some of his greatest inspiration came from Indigenous individuals at powwows.

He described one woman saying to him, "At least, I will have danced beside the river before I am gone."

Another inspiring moment was when he watched a group of Comanche go down to the river to bathe.

"An idea came from deep inside," he said. "The Keeper of the Plains got down to the depths of how the Indian feels."

The final result, Bosin said, "conveyed everything I wanted to say."

In the last 50 years, the Keeper has done that and more.


Crane operator Mario Barnoski beginning the process of lifting the Keeper of the Plains into place at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers on May 18, 1974. Barnoski's family says they found this photo in an old scrapbook.

But Bosin was a painter, not a metal worker or welder, so he needed a little help to turn his sketch into a towering sculpture of Cor-Ten steel.

"My husband came home and said that there was a project with Blackbear Bosin to build an Indian," said Janet Washburn, who's husband Tom was one of the project leads at Architectural Metal Productions in 1973. "And they were hoping they would get to manufacture it."

Janet remembers they took Bosin's sketch and ran with it. She remembers the long hours he put in on the project.

"It involved an awful lot of pre-work because they had to make sure all the blueprints would be in place to make Blackbear's dream come true," she said.

From blueprints to cardboard models, to scaled down metal versions of the Keeper, they had to do it all before they could start work on the final 44-foot-tall sculpture.

"It became a challenge because of the size of it," said Robert Gragg.

He was a high school senior that year, working a co-op job for half the school day at the metal shop, and likely the youngest one to end up on the Keeper's crew.

"I was the one that built the majority of the curves, or helped build the curved sections of the Keeper of the Plains," he said. "I never even thought about it being such an icon. But you know, as it stands there today, it's still pretty special."


He's not alone. When Janet and her, then two-year-old, daughter would visit the shop during construction, they didn't think much about the impact the sculpture would have on the city, either.

"I just can't imagine this little towheaded kid crawling around on this big old metal thing," said Washburn's daughter Jill.

She and her mom weren't even there when crews set the Keeper in its place. But they take great pride in their connection to the Keeper all these years later.

"And it's just been such a source of pride for our family for a long time," Jill added.

Everyone who worked on it did, Jill and Janet said.

"All of his staff, all the welders, everybody," Janet said. "I mean it was like it was their Keeper. Not just Blackbear's, but every person that was involved in that."

She points at Jill sitting next to her.

"And she has always called it Daddy's Keeper," Janet finishes with a laugh.

The Keeper may seem simple from it's outward appearance, but as Gragg said, it was actually very complicated on the inside, due to the winds it would have to withstand out by the rivers and it's size.

"I just remember seeing the head and it was just monstrous," Washburn said. "That was laying there in the shop. My husband would take us down on Saturday mornings so we could see the progress and it was a monster I can tell you!"



"You would not believe the amount of structure that's inside," Gragg said. "It's just unbelievable. All cross members and stuff like that because it withstands a lot of wind."

Bosin said in an interview with the Eagle just days before crews set the Keeper up that he tried to stay away from the construction process because he didn't want to cause dissension. But he still made several visits to the shop.

"He was not a prima donna at all. He just wanted to see it," Washburn reminisced. "He didn't try to tell them anything about what they should be doing or anything."

Somewhere along the way he gave those working so hard to turn his dream into a reality their own name: The Dirty Dozen. But, no one KAKE News spoke with could remember precisely why, though they had some ideas.


"I think they probably seen the movie The Dirty Dozen," Washburn said. "That's my thought on that."

Gragg shrugged. "It's a dirty job."

It wasn't long after The Dirty Dozen finished their job and crews hauled the Keeper into place, that Wichitans began singing it's praises.

In a Letter to the Editor later that month, Harold Hurtt, Sr, wrote, "Bosin's statue is a magnificent design. In line, in form and in color."

Though not everyone loved it. Another Wichitan wrote in July of 1974 how much he disliked the sculpture, saying, "The head looks more like a title for 'The Tinman' and the arm like the front leg of a horse."

Nevertheless, the Keeper almost immediately became a symbol of the area - both informally and formally.

By August of 1974, the Keeper's image was part of the City of Wichita's official key. President Gerald Ford got the first copy of the new key during his visit to the city in October of that year.


It took a few more years, but in the 1980s the Wichita Convention and Tourism Bureau included the Keeper in it's logo. Sedgwick County got in on the act, too, removing Union General John Sedgwick from the county seal and replacing him with a drawing of the Keeper.

The Keeper also gained national attention as part of the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations, purely by accident.

In January of 1976, the Keeper became one of four symbols appearing on the National Bicentennial emblem, joining the Statue of Liberty, the head of George Washington and a group of faces symbolizing the American people.

When Cathy Farrell, the head of public relations for the National Bicentennial Administration, visited Wichita a few months earlier, someone took her to see the Keeper. A short time later, the question was raised in a planning meeting, did anyone know of a good symbol for Native Americans? She did and the Keeper made history, again.

The Bicentennial Administration imprinted the Keeper's image on six foot cubes which it then set up in cities around the nation to promote the country's 200th birthday party and included the Keeper on special bicentennial pewter plates



Wichita put a sketch of the Keeper up on a billboard at 1st and Hydrualic as part of a special birthday greeting to the nation.

Some might also say the Keeper has a little international travel on the record as well.

Just months after the Keeper of the Plains took his place, Bob Wise, a Wichita garden supply dealer, secured a grant from Dow Chemical to finance the cost of creating 10-foot-tall mini-Keepers to send to Wichita's two sister cities at the time: Orleáns, France, and Tlalnepantla, México. The total cost was about $15,000.

By February of 1975, the first mini-Keeper was headed to México where it came to rest in Plaza Wichita, on the outskirts of Tlalnepantla, with a palm tree behind it and a pyramid nearby.



The next June, the second mini-Keeper found it's new home in France, where the City of Orleáns unveiled it during the Jeanne d'Arc Festival. But all didn't quite go to plan there.

As Wichita Eagle columnist Dan Granger put it in his column Talk of the Town, "Lo, the poor pale faces reddened and a red man paled because the rust hit the dust in Orleáns."

What happened?

The Keeper and it's replicas are all made of Cor-Ten steel, designed to rust a reddish brown, but not deteriorate. Except no one warned the French.

When the mini-Keeper arrived ahead of the Wichita delegation, the French were horrified to discover the sculpture had rusted on the trip over and quickly went to work, scraping the rust off and painting the Keeper what they considered an appropriate dove grey. Not wanting to embarrass the Americans, they said nothing of the problem.

So imagine the surprise when, at the dedication ceremony, Blackbear Bosin unveiled his statue and it was the wrong shade and texture!

The French ended up sandblasting the paint back off and letting the mini-Keeper rust in peace.


When Wichita added a third sister city, Cancún, México, in 1976, it too got a copy of the Keeper. Cancún responded with a sculptural gift of it's own, a 15-foot-tall replica of a pre-Columbian statue of the Mayan god Chac Mool.

The Keeper's 50th birthday is a big deal for everyone in Wichita, but none more so than the city's Indigenous community. While they make up just 1.1% of the city's population, it's their heritage the city has taken as it's representation to the world.

"Some people might not even realize that, you know, they're working next to a native," Guy Buffalohead, Ponca, told KAKE News in November of 2023. "I just want people to know that we are still here, and we're in your community. We're working, living next to you, thriving."

Over the last few months we've heard similar refrains from many in Wichita's Native community, a feeling of being overlooked, as if they were extinct. But there's one sign the entire city recognizes that says Native Americans are still here and an important of our town.


"It's a symbol for us. And it's the status in that we are still here, because a lot of times, especially in this day and age, we kind of seem to get brushed under the rug, and we just would like everybody to know that we, as a people, we're still here," said Dal Domebo, Kiowa, Ponca and Quapaw, the chair of the Mid-America All-Indian Museum Board of Trustees. "And being able to celebrate the Keeper and being able to have it here at the museum, with such a big Native influence, shows that."

From visitors to Wichitans born and bred, the Keeper draws a crowd of admirers everyday.

"It's so.... it's beautiful. Yes. I just like the look of it," said Aneth Edwards, a Wichitan who's visiting the Keeper for the second time.

"I always kind of thought of him, you know, as The Indian, growing up because we always went to the powwows," said Nicole Villapando from Wichita.

"It's iconic," added Wichitan Brooke Rowzee, who brought a friend from out of town to see him. "Think about Wichita with the Keeper and just how many people have been through here, born here, visit here, moved here, and it's just a staple to come visit it."

Her friend, Shawn Lynch, from Queens, New York, didn't know what to expect until he got there. 

"It's very visually stunning in that, you know, kind of connecting into the waters location," Lynch said.

"(It) looks pretty amazing, to be honest," added Juan Diaz of Salt Lake City. 

Jill Gorrie from Arizona struggled to find the words to describe the Keeper.

"When I got into the parking lot and I was looking around for it, I was quite impressed at the size. Just the one, I.....I..." she trailed off.

Over the years, the Keeper has inspired all sorts of public comment as well as become a community gathering point for rallies, vigils, and even just great photography.

At the time of the Keeper of the Plains' dedication in 1974, Bosin said preserving Native American heritage helped inspire the statue's look.

That's part of what brought Johnathan Armstrong and his family down to the river.

"It's in my blood. It's in my DNA. I'm Cherokee and Choctaw. I'm native to Wichita," he said.

"It reminds us like that we're not the first ones that have been to Kansas or to Wichita," Rowzee continued. "That (the city) actually has a history. We should all learn about it."

And if it doesn't always remind folks that Native Americans are a living, breathing part of our community, that's art.


"My uncle, Blackbear, I learned a lot from him. He told me once.... what you see in that picture and what I see in that picture, it's not gonna be the same thing. It will have the same content. But what is the story about it?" explained Susan Seal, Kiowa Comanche.

A story that's now almost 50 years old and still growing and changing. The Keeper of the Plains, as we know it today, looks far different than he did when first erected 50 years ago.

No, the Keeper himself hasn't changed. But his home sure has.

In 2005, the city took the Keeper down and sent him in for renovations while crews put in a new pedestal base for him to stand on. While he was gone, welders added a bit of reinforcement inside the Keeper so he could withstand the stronger winds from being so much higher in the sky.

Once returned to his new resting place in 2006, the city spent the next year adding the ring of fire which lights up at the base of the sculpture for 15 minutes every night just after sunset, barring weather conditions. The city also added two pedestrian bridges, one to each side of the two rivers, so we can all get up close with this sculpture that has come to represent our community. 



He's also multiplied over the years and changed his basic make-up.

The first of the 10-foot-tall replicas of the Keeper were also made of Cor-Ten steel. But then new fiber glass Keepers, painted with all sorts of different themes, began popping up all around town in 2015.

These Keepers on Parade are painted by local artists and are part of a project by Together Wichita. Their purpose is to highlight what makes Wichita special.

The Bosin family gave special permission to use the image of the Keeper, a necessary move because, while Bosin donated the sculpture to the city he kept the rights to the Keeper's image.


In 2020, the city commissioned 13 more Keepers on Parade, each painted to incorporate the number 150 in some way to celebrate the city's 150th birthday.

There are now more than 60 fiberglass mini-Keepers on display throughout Wichita.

The man behind the Keeper of the Plains, artist Blackbear Bosin, was primarily a painter. The Keeper was his only sculpture and remains his most famous work.

Born in a tipi in Oklahoma in 1921, Bosin moved to Wichita in the 1940s where he got a job in the aviation industry. But, he had a lifelong attraction to color and form that led him to painting.

His first exhibit was in Honolulu in 1945. He quickly grew to national prominence, earning shows at the Smithsonian and National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Bosin died in 1980, just six years after the completion of the Keeper. He was just 59 years old.

But his spirit lives on, watching over the city in the form of his sculpture.


There's one place in town that's taken on the responsibility of preserving that history for future generations , the Mid-America All-Indian Museum. Behind a corner at the back of the museum is a major display of Bosin's work. It's a display that catches many visitors, many Wichitans by surprise.

"They see all these paintings and asked who made them," said Domebo. "We tell them Blackbear Bosin and they make the connection. 'Like, you mean the Keeper Guy?'"

The Keeper Guy, the guy who drew a sketch that became a 44-foot-tall steel sculpture overlooking the City of Wichita.

Behind the museum, the Keeper has stood watch for five decades now and that's something Domebo and his team think deserves celebration.

"The Keeper is iconic to Wichita, and it's something that everybody can rally around because everybody is proud of it. No more so than the Native community," he said.

Domebo is leading up the Board of Trustees at the museum that's planning the Party for the People to celebrate the Keeper's 50th.

Helping make that possible is the museum's partner and the party's sponsor, Blue Cross, Blue Shield of Kansas.

"It's important that (the public) understand that Kansans are not just one particular group of people. Our state is made up of a myriad of diversity traits, right?" said Lonnie Walker, Jr, with BCBS of Kansas. "We just feel like celebrating the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the Keeper of the Plains sculpture is a monumental occasion for us to be a part of."

After all, a party like this only happens every five decades, just twice a century.

"I'm sure in another 50 years he'll still be the icon of Wichita," Domebo said. "We want to make sure we do our part to preserve and to be able to help make that happen."