Monday, August 15, 2005

The Eight Bears and the Blackft

“Eight Bears: A Biography of E.W. Deming, 1860-1942”
by Thomas G. Lamb. Griffin Books, Oklahoma City, 1978.
“The Indians in Winter Camp” by Therese O. Deming and Edwin W. Deming, Indian Life Series, Laidlaw Bros., 1931.

E.W. Deming was a Western artist, a contemporary and good friend of Frederick Remington. Deming, like Schreyvogel who was also on the scene, has slid out of public memory, probably because he specialized in Indians in his art and because the books he and his wife wrote about them were for children. The West is interpreted in many different ways and the mainly promoted ways are Remington-esque -- that is, concentrated on action, manliness and patriotic domination of enemies. Though Deming knew very well that Indians were adults capable of all three qualities, the American public didn’t much want to hear about it, esp. then. Deming knew and interviewed warriors who were participants in the Custer Incident, for instance, and painted versions of the battle based on their reports, but these are pushed aside. Only dead Indians were good Indians, unless they were little children, so this is the way Deming took in order to preserve his integrity.

“The Indians in Winter Camp” is one of these books for and about children. The art is “simple” because Deming thinks this will appeal to children. Though they are very appealing, many figures are just outlines filled in with color. Horses are almost always portrayed from the side and always have about the same gait. Backgrounds are usually far-away hills and quite faint. This story is about a generic tribe, but since the little boy’s dog is named “Shonka,” I suspect Sioux is the prototype. Shunka is “dog” in Sioux.

The good side of this strategy is that it tends to make us sympathetic to Indians, especially when the Demings emphasize the spiritual qualities of Indians, for instance, that it is always necessary to thank animals one kills for food. The bad side of the strategy is one we’re still paying for: “Indian in the Cupboard” syndrome which makes real, fully-rounded people into cute little toys who can be pushed around. A recent scandal that is hard for Indians to explain to whites is the case of Professor Gulliford at Fort Union College who wrote a patronizing and pandering little essay about his students, how quiet and attentive they were. He has taken a good blistering for this but still doesn’t understand the objections of his suddenly rebellious students. I don’t think the Demings would have either.

One of Deming’s specialties was painting in homes murals and frescoes, large-scale pastel scenes. Educated in Paris at Beaux Arts, he got his start painting panoramas or cycloramas, which were a very early attempt to create something like a movie. Scenes were painted onto a big upright strip of canvas and people either walked around inside or the canvas was actually scrolled in front of them. Sometimes stuffed figures were put in front of the canvas to help the sense of reality. I hope some museum somewhere has preserved one of these. Maybe one of Deming’s, maybe about the Custer incident according to his information from Indian friends, but probably he couldn’t let the public know of these friendships.

Major institutions bought Deming’s work, bronzes as well as paintings. He traveled among many tribes, even into South America, and brought back a pet ocelot to his studio in Greenwich Village where people gathered to hear his talks. He WAS what many people think Charlie Russell was -- a family man with six children, a stainless partner to his wife, a man of good will and sympathy to all. “Eight Bears” is a name he was given by the Blackfeet, after a bit of negotiation because his wife and six children (8 bears total) were also to receive names but two of the children were identical twins, which is not good luck among the Blackfeet. The solution was to give the two children protective tokens. (My guess is that none of this was free.) Deming called his studio “the Bear Den” and made a bronze door knocker in the shape of a bear.

Here’s one of the most charming memories, quite typical: When Deming married, he took his Eastern bride first to the Hopi pueblos where they were given a living space in the open but under the shelter of a roof overhang. Mrs. Deming was exhausted and had caught a bad cold. That country, you may know, gets pretty cold at night and they were sleeping on a stone terrace. She often waked herself with coughing. Very late she woke to find an old Indian man standing near to her, looking. Then man bent down to put his hand over her cold hand. She thought she might be murdered, but the old man stood up again, removed the blanket wrapped around himself, and carefully spread it over her so she would be warm. Then she slept peacefully and confidently.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have a copy of a children's book that was "Renewed and Extended" by the Demings in 1927, originally published in 1899 by Frederick A. Stokes. It is called, "Indian Child Life".
It was used in the Fort Worth Public Schools where my aunt taught third grade for 43 years.
After traveling extensively in the southwest and west this summer (including the Battle of the Little Big Horn Monument, I found your comments on Mr. Demings art and their books most interesting. It is interesting to me that the subject matter has been subdued over the years by our need to overlook a history so important to this country.