Saturday, April 26, 2008


Every year the School of Journalism at the University of Montana in Missoula does a newspaper insert containing stories about Montana Indian reservations. In previous years I’ve responded with letters -- this is the first time I’ve been asked for ideas beforehand. My reporter is someone named Vicki.

Where to start? First, Bob Scriver never did "Indian art" and was not part of that world. His museum was about animals though he often made sculpture about Blackfeet as well as animals, family members, and commissioned portrait busts. He employed maybe four or five Blackfeet families over decades, but they didn't do "Indian art." They helped with the taxidermy and the sculpture, both, as well as building and maintaining the ranch over towards the Rockies. Another group was paid to pose for sculpture. Bob always meant his museum to complement the Museum of the Plains Indian, not to challenge it.

It may surprise some that the categories of "Indian art" and "Cowboy art" are quite distinct with customer bases that are often quite different. “Indian art” is often abstract and always based in the Southwest, maybe in Santa Fe where there is a school that gathers young people. “Cowboy art” as it exists in Montana is dominated by the example of Charlie Russell, who was always realistic and mostly self-daught.

BUT Bob was raised among the Blackfeet (born in the house where Leland Ground now runs EagleCalf Medical Supplies, next to Cuts Wood School.) Most of the people he knew were Blackfeet and he was always friends with Claude Schaffer, Tom and Alice Kehoe, John Ewers, and Raymon Gonyea, the anthropologists at the Museum of the Plains Indian. (Gonyea is Indian, but not Blackfeet. He's now at the Eiteljorg.)

In Browning the Museum of the Plains Indian was ALWAYS the main museum from the time it was formed in the 1940's. It was seriously damaged in the Big Flood of 1965 and so were many of the materials stored in the basement which was flooded. The damage has never really been addressed and this information is suppressed. The displays were never changed and were not originally meant to be: they were supposed to be a “library” for craft workers and one wing held the work room. That room was run for many years by Jackie Parsons, now the head of the Montana Arts Council. She is Blackfeet. It’s a bit of a mystery why that system came apart.

At the height of the “Red Power” movement when anthropologists were no longer directing operations, all the files in the archives that had to do with white people were taken to the dump. That included white artists like Russell. Not long ago a Ph.D. candidate went with her professor to visit the library but was prevented from entering because she was Blackfeet. The white professor was admitted. It was another of those Simple Simon reversals that reservations are prone to perform, doing the opposite of something that got them in trouble but without understanding why. The Museum is owned by the Craft Board, which is a subsidiary of the BIA. They are much less powerful now and largely unfunded. They would like to give the museum to the Tribe, which cannot afford to maintain it.

Another blunder was an “upgrading” of some of the exhibited materials, mainly the clothing. In doing cleaning, repair, and replacement, the value of antiquity was lost. But this sort of issue is not a matter for tourists to think about. They probably didn’t know the difference. The local people who did the work thought they looked better and, of course, they made a little money.

The feeling is that tourists might not be stopping in Browning because Bob is gone and his museum has been obliterated, now existing as the Blackfeet Heritage Center. I’m not sure how many of Bob’s art customers even came to Browning. Certainly, they were not tourists if they already knew about Bob’s work. “Tourists” were people who happened by and came in out of curiosity. Once they walked through the front door, we worked very hard to get them to buy an admission to the museum. Many turned on their heel and left. Few could have afforded a bronze if they had wanted to.

The suggestion was made that Bob’s bronze customers were famous people who came from Europe because they loved Indians, but I don’t think so. Scriver customers mostly belonged to the people served by the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel, a network of auctions, institutions, and galleries -- people who swarm the CM Russell Auction every March. Very few Indians attend or participate in that Auction. Many of Bob’s customers were Montana folks and almost all were white and American. America patriotism, especially for Republicans, links far more strongly to “cowboy art” than to Indians, unless the subject is the Prairie Clearances and the resulting genocide by cavalry, where some white people weirdly identify with the victims AND the soldiers.

Indians have made it a point to preserve their own identities and to protest against governmental domination. It is said that many Europeans, particularly Germans, come to Browning for the culture and art. The Germans and French are very aware of the NA American genocide and still insist on the idea of the Vanishing Indian, though they’ve stopped vanishing! Euros want relics, they want 19th century sights (tipi villages), and so on. Darrell Norman’s operation capitalizes on that. His wife is German. Adolph Hungry Wolf actually LIVES that.

Vicki says that a survey in 1995 on behalf of the Montana Arts Council verified over 300 traditional artists practicing beautiful work on the Blackfeet reservation. She asks, “Why isn't it a draw for economic development?” It’s very hard to interface between producers and consumers because the producers tend to be free-lance individuals working out of their homes, when they have time, an idea and the right materials. The consumers come through during a ten week period in summer and there is no real “marketplace.” Producers tend to need money as they go, so they don’t stockpile for the summer.

But it’s possible to follow the Pow-wow circuit, which is a bigger market and one that grows constantly as more NA people themselves become prosperous enough to be good customers. Artists who are good enough to go to the annual Santa Fe annual fair can really clean up.

Also, people really don’t know how to evaluate Indian work and tend to buy “trinkets,” that is, beaded barrettes and the like. If people do major, sophisticated, expensive artifacts, they get a lot more money, but have to find some other way to pay the bills in between. Those who appreciate high-end authentic artifact reproductions are not usually tourists but are more likely to work through brokers. Responding to the need for small popular items, a class of pan-tribal objects has developed, like dream-catchers or rearview mirror fetishes that include feathers and crystals. The big seller at this spring’s Indian Art Show, a separate and very nice art show at the Civic Center during the Russell Auction, was dream catchers with a wee basketball at the center!

Vicki bravely asks a painful question: “Are people afraid to stop on a reservation?” The answer is also painful: people are always afraid to stop. This was especially true when there was polio on the reservation in the Fifties (before I came) and after Wounded Knee II when the image of Indians changed drastically. I’m not afraid of street “winoes” because I know most of them (might’ve been their English teacher!) but tourists can’t tell. Anyway, they can see Glacier Park in the distance. The highway looks a little tough these days. No white money comes in from outside because there are no particular advantages for white merchants-- sometimes penalties. There is a LOT of risky traffic on the main streets, esp. in summer, because local people spend so much time cruising. Gas prices may fix that.

Indians want two mutually exclusive things at once: they want everyone to come around and love them and celebrate them, but they also want to appear potent and connected to the 19th century warrior culture. If you look at Robert Hall’s “Rez Dogs” video (created in Missoula as part of a project), you’ll see the full spectrum from the spitting contempt of the first wino to the expansive hospitality of the one at the end. (It might still be on YouTube.)

The focus gets lost. First it’s artifacts, then it’s modern art, then it’s dinosaurs, then it’s a casino, then it’s environmental studies. As leadership shifts around and the media change the subject, everyone hares off to the next idea instead of concentrating on one thing until it works. Successes like the Scriver Studio or Darrell Norman’s camp and gallery, or the Blackfeet Trading Post happen because of a near monomania over a period of years, maybe decades. Too many people want instant results. They have a deep conviction that there is a magic answer and a terrible vulnerability to the possibility that they just aren’t good enough. What wins is a lot of preparation, steady work at the project, and the ability to congratulate oneself over small but real successes.


Anonymous said...

It is a puzzlement what happens, along the years, to museums and art exhibits. I, personally, enjoy "Indian art" and find "cowboy art" not at all appealing (although I can appreciate the talent that goe into making it).
Cop Car

Anonymous said...

my wife and I took a drive along the front in early may last year and stayed at the Great Northern B&B in Chester hosted by Philip Aaberg and his wife Patty. It was such a great trip that we are doing it again this year. We have many choices of places to go of course, but one article in Montana Quarterly caught our eye- it described Big Sandy and featured the art work of Nick Fry. We stopped and visited with Nick and bought a few pieces. Perhaps Montana Quarterly could do a piece about Browning and Heart Butte and feature a prominent artist?

Rebecca Clayton said...

Has anybody experimented with marketing on the Internet? There are markets for handmade objects, whether art or craft, at a number of different levels, from high end art textiles to antique quilts to goofy skill-less items I can't imagine anyone wanting. (The fiber arts are the areas I've researched, many other media are also marketed online.)

You understand as well as anyone how the Internet is changing writers' markets. I've been pretty successful at selling modestly priced handmade items whenever I've needed a little cash for materials and equipment, but many serious artisans get the word out to a wide audience via Websites.

Just a thought.

Your observation:
"It’s very hard to interface between producers and consumers because the producers tend to be free-lance individuals working out of their homes, when they have time, an idea and the right materials....Producers tend to need money as they go, so they don’t stockpile for the summer."