Lawsuit rejected, license plate not religious in nature

Lawsuit rejected, license plate not religious in nature

LAWTON, Okla._Local Apache tribal officials are encouraged following the court's rejection of a lawsuit over a piece of art depicting their heritage.

The challenge was filed by an Oklahoma City-area pastor who protested the use of an image of a Native American sculpture on Oklahoma's license plates. He claimed the sculpture promoted a religious viewpoint contrary to his own, and was being compelled by the state to display it. The court rejected those arguments, saying most people would simply connect the image to Oklahoma's Native American history and culture.

The sculpture, called "Sacred Rain Arrow," was created by Apache artist Allan Houser in 1988. It is currently located outside of the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa.

No one at the tag agency knew the story behind the license plate, but Leanna Wallace says she believes Native American culture should be preserved.

"I don't think they need to remove anybody's heritage, regardless of who it is," Wallace said. "Because it's our heritage, it's where it is. We are in Oklahoma, it's Indian territory."

Apache tribal historian Leland Darrow says the sculpture was created based on a story artist Allan Houser had heard from a tribal elder about a terrible drought.

"One young man was given some advice to shoot an arrow up into the sky in order to convey the information that the drought needed to end," Darrow explained.

Fort Sill Apache chairman Jeff Haozous , the artist's nephew, says the sculpture, as depicted on the license plate, has nothing to do with Apache religion.

"Somebody unfairly characterizes a piece of art and beauty as a tribal religion, which it wasn't. Our religion is much more than a sculpture, and it is much more than any piece of material. It's a whole series of traditions and songs and ceremonies that have been carried on from time immemorial," Haozous explained.

Haozous says his uncle was the first child born into freedom after the Apache tribe was held captive by the government for 27 years.

"The beauty of his work and his skills means a lot, and to have that grace the tags of every car in the state really means a lot to us," Haozous said.

For drivers across the state, the license plate will remain the same, a symbol of the Native American culture that flows throughout the state.

Allan Houser has sculptures located all over the world, including the Smithsonian, the Oklahoma Capitol and the University of Oklahoma's campus.

Oklahoma has the highest population of Native Americans, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Interior in 2014.