Wednesday, September 14, 2005

"The Piegan Medicine Lodge -- a film

This tiny movie was filmed in 1956 in Heart Butte by the Montana Office of Public Instruction and the Fish and Wildlife Bureau. The ceremony itself is quite modest and the film quality is bad: early color with nearly black shadows. The Medicine Woman was Maggie Swims Under and she pledged for her grandson, Joseph, who was in the grip of polio, a plague of the Fifties on and off the reservation -- even striking the President of the US.

Narration is by Knute W. Bergan, for whom the primary school in Browning is named because he was superintendent there at one time. I have no idea what made him so outstanding that a school would be named for him -- maybe it was only his Indian-friendliness. (I personally would rename the school for Greengrass Bull, who was an early outstanding warrior. In later years he earned a living by hauling wash water in a rickety wagon with a pack of assorted dogs behind him.) Bergan’s narration is rather “Bushian,” that is, long “a’s” and every consonant carefully pronounced. One short sentence slowly announced after another. There is a bit of Blackfeet language here and there in the background.

The most prominent characters, aside from the Medicine Woman, is Jim Whitecalf Sr. who at this period was relatively vigorous and actively supervising, going back and forth in his capote. (A capote is a coat with a hood made from a Hudson’s Bay blanket.) Once the dancing begins, the camera loves Theodore Last Star and his second wife, Cecile née Boy. Both have modeled for many artists, both painters and sculptors. I can recognize Fish Wolf Robe and Louis Plenty Treaty.

The older men wear white buckskin, rather plain, and new Sioux-type eagle feather headdresses. One carries a full otter hide with small round mirrors on it. The younger men’s costumes are much more somber and spare than now, and their dancing is more restrained, stylized -- none of the wild contemporary flinging. I saw no younger women dancing, no jingle dresses.

Heart Butte rises in the background. There are not many lodges, maybe half a dozen to a dozen, and not a huge crowd. The men who bring in the center-post tree wear cowboy clothes and ride their horses of which there are many, mostly brown, including the well-trained team that pulls the running gear on which the tree is transported. People are sober and careful. Older folks are in charge. There is no self-torture with thongs through breast muscle. There is ceremonial fasting, broken by a kind of communion of thin-sliced boiled buffalo tongue. Everything is done four times, in contrast to the magical Christian Three.

The only legend mentioned is that of Scarface, who goes off to see the Sun so that he can be made handsome and marry well. But it’s my understanding (and feminists will like this) that there is another legend that is equally or more pertinent -- that of the woman who falls in love with the Evening Star and goes to live with him in the Sky World. She is told there is only one restriction on her in that world -- she may dig as she is used to doing on the prairie in order to find food and she may keep her digging stick, but she should never try to dig up one huge “turnip” or something very bad will happen to her.

Everything is fine for a long time and she has a child, a boy, but she gets restless and like Pandora, starts obsessing about that “turnip.” When she can no longer resist and yanks up that big root, it makes a hole in the sky and through it she can see her old village and family. She is stricken with homesickness. Sent back to earth with her baby, she must never let his feet touch the ground. He must be kept on a buffalo robe. Of course, eventually his feet touch the ground and he vanishes.

The Medicine Woman in this movie is plainly carrying a digging stick on her back -- this is the true holy object. I’ve thought a lot about what it means to have a long-used tool, an extension of one’s hand, that is a connection to the earth and food. I’ve also thought about the wives who were captured, bought or romanced away from their families, maybe very young, and who might always have a quiet longing to go home. Babies who grow up, put their feet on the ground and walk off. Sacajawea and "Pomp" are a case in point.

The great emphasis of old-timers who talk about the Medicine Woman is that she must be irreproachable, totally virtuous. If she is not and dares to be the central figure in this ceremony, the results will be death and disaster for the tribe. Everyone likes the wild warrior stories, but it is the “little mother” who is really the key to the good life. One woman who overreached was struck by lightning in the middle of the ceremony.

The Heart Butte ceremonies are held in berry season, August, unlike the Browning Indian Days which were scheduled by the Indian Agent to fall between cuttings of hay. The Browning ceremony is now a huge, flashy Pan-Indian Pow-Wow accompanied by rock concerts, horse races, rodeo and blackjack tents. Neither event would be complete without stick game, which is so old that game “bones,” made of stone, have been found in Africa that date to tens of thousands of years B.C.

This rather crude little movie was made early enough that people must have still been a little nervous about being possibly suppressed or punished by the Indian Agent. On the other hand, they are probably not happy about cameras either. Bergan says, “This is the first time in history that a Medicine Woman has been photographed in her lodge,” but Walter McClintock took an earlier photo in “The Old North Trail,” maybe. Those were still photos, though. Bad things for the next year will be blamed on photographers.

Those were the days when Indians were still seen as performing ethnic spectacles that white people could visit in order to admire. There’s a little note of patronizing indulgence. But the boy, Joseph, did recover from the polio.

1 comment:

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