In 1961 when I arrived on the rez, the Big Hotel in East Glacier Park didn’t even like local whites to come around, much less Indians. The place was entirely staffed by blonde and obedient Minnesota kids, usually with a connection to Great Northern Railway. But times change and even Minnesota kids aren’t what they used to be -- the Great Northern, of course, no longer exists.
This last weekend the Harvest Moon Ball was held in the Big Hotel, completely organized, attended and funded by Blackfeet. Not all were local: one was Greek, and one lives off-rez with whites and paints like a white man because he was entirely educated in big city white art schools -- but that’s beside the point and mean-spirited anyway. The featured artist, Leonda Fast Buffalo Horse, had the highest selling piece: “Celestial Bear Shield,” a mirror and stained-glass round shield with a bear paw and two eagle feathers. It sold for $2,800 in the live auction. Total sales were $39,000.
Four artists -- Valentina LaPier, Brett Wagner, David Dragonfly, and Gary Schildt -- created “quickdraw” art for silent auction. The “quickdraw” deal was invented in Helena at the Rendezvous of Art and consists of the artists creating their work right on the spot with an arbitrary time limit. The model was an Indian woman in a shawl and braids with an eagle feather stuck in her hair and an eagle wing fan. (Evidently no one made a fuss about stereotypes.)
Professional chefs -- many of them Blackfeet restauranteurs -- supplied a feast of prime rib and salmon. Quite different from what used to be the norm at pow-wows and ceremonies, which tended to be boiled ribs, boiled eggs, fry bread, and oranges you peeled yourself. And different from the big “feeds” that serve Indian Tacos. Pretty Indian girls in Academy Award-type fancy dresses undertook the traffic control and serving. There once was a time you’d have had to hold a gun on young Blackfeet women to get them into such dresses!
This year was meant to honor two of the most beloved Blackfeet artists: King Kuka and Ernie Pepion. Both recently passed on. Kuka had a strong spiritual component to his work and often painted riders in a spatter of white “snow.” He was educated at the University of Montana, earning a BA and worked in many different media. He said, “Dreams are invisible voices calling me, sustaining me, carrying me in difficult times.”
After a car accident iin 1971, Ernie Pepion was confined to a wheelchair but his imagination and mordant humor were never confined. He said, “Since I am a firm believer in dreams, I believe that one of these days I’ll dance right out of this chair, maybe not at this lifetime, but maybe in the end when I go to the Sand Hills. I am trying to show that even though we handicapped people may have physical limitations, we can conquer anything mentally.” Engineering students in Bozeman rigged an easel for him that could be lowered into the floor or pivoted around the middle so there were no limits to the size of canvas he could use.
The money goes to the Blackfeet Community Development Fund, directed by Eloise Cobell, whose lawsuit against the US Government (did you catch the last scandal: the records found in the garbage behind the Archives building in Washington, D.C.?) has taught her to think outside the box and to think BIG. So here are tribal people using creativity and glamour to create an event that makes them proud and builds up funds for a community people always used to say would prevent any such thing.
The Big Hotel comes along meekly, having checked their own financial books and realized that this money was made in a season when the place used to be shuttered, though it’s one of the sweetest parts of the year. (Not least because all the tourists disappear after Labor Day.)
(I’m indebted for the facts above to John McGill, the editor of the “Glacier Reporter.” www.glacierreporter.com)
In the Sixties it used to be that “Indian art” was when you (rarely Indian) bought some photographic portraits of old-time Indians (often rigged up with stuff out of the photographer’s trunk) and either painted them or carved the likenesses -- then sold them to tourists. We’ve come a long ways since then. The entire August, 2005, issue of “Southwest Art” was devoted to what they call “Native Art,” and it is almost entirely conceived by Indians, drawn from their own world, often contemporary or in a medium entirely unexpected, maybe experimental. Fabulous glowing bowls of glass with “sand-carved” geometric patterns. Elegant jewelry cast from leggos. Startling abstracts in colors never seen in nature. Shamans (shamen?) with the heads of animals. Then it all swings around the other way and here’s work by a self-taught Indian admirer of Charlie Russell or a surreal trompe l’oeil by an Indian admirer of European old masters.
When one looks at the subject matter, the “traditional” portraits of romantic Indians are almost all by the new wave of Chinese artists or maybe a leftover from the “pretty girl” tradition of Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post.
They say that the famous Santa Fe Indian Market is so high dollar now that the Mafia is beginning to muscle in. Hillerman hasn’t gotten a plot out of that yet, but surely it’s worth a murder mystery.
My favorite work in this issue belongs to “bird art” and shows ravens and crows walking around in big red high-top tennies. Except for their feet, the birds are realistic, esp their attitude.
Maybe attitude is the key to the whole thing: an attitude of “sure I can!” and “look at that!” and a willingness to be personal, to mix up the categories and taxonomies, but not to lose civility, beauty, and solidarity. This is the real fund that’s being built up by the Harvest Moon Ball at the Big Hotel. Community and personal meaning.