I was interested in the Great Falls Tribune Sunday story (8-31-08) about the proposed acquisition of the David Humphreys Miller collection. Actually, they say it's worth 1.4 million. (Inflation, you know.) With the Miller collection in mind, let’s take a look at what makes collections of Indian artifacts (and portraits) valuable.
First of all, let’s be blunt. Indian artifacts were often the trophies of the wars that cleared the prairies for white development. A scalp, a quiver, a shield, guns and bows and so on might have been actually collected off the field the way my uncle acquired Herman Goering’s tableware and stationary after WWII. This collection is in part made valuable by its connection to the Battle of the Little Big Horn or the Battle of the Greasy Grass or Custer’s Last Stand. Naming rights to the event is part of the dynamics.
Second, Indian artifacts were often sold because the People were pressed into need by the loss of their former economy and the graft of the US government, from agents to railroaders, who constantly skimmed tribal wealth. (One might accompany this point with the CMR portrait of the Indian mother selling a buffalo horn hat rack, trudging down the sidewalk in front of an elegantly porched Great Falls house where a prosperous but oblivious white woman rocks her child.)
Third, Indian artifacts are based on the 19th century assumption that Indians were doomed as a separate people, that the death of their previous culture would mean NO culture at all, so they would stop existing. The idea is that we killed them, but we saved their good stuff as curiosities or maybe “works of art” or for a veneer of scientific research.
Fourth, religious artifacts are laden with the “magic” quality that many attribute to the American Indian of the 19th century and that contemporary Indians use to accrue value and status to themselves. But it’s my understanding that the value and status of ceremonial objects and their allocation to the stewardship of individuals, though they were connected to prosperity (both bringing it and necessitating it for the expensive performance of the ceremonies) actually belonged to the tribe itself. That is, the elders of the tribe determined worthiness to manage ceremonies, because the "magic" affected the welfare of the whole.
Yet this is problematic because the “tribe” was an assemblage of independent bands whose leadership shifted according to the task at hand so as to put capable people in charge. There was no “tribe” as a whole until the US Government began to impose the requirement so as to have a coherent entity with which to deal, who could sign treaties in the European manner. Many problems have been created by their failure to recognize that in the best of times (even now) the bands never universally assented to decisions. The tribe’s most powerful portion, not necessarily a majority, is associated with a lot of small groups who go along only if they must and often with a great deal of noisy objection. If two factions are about evenly matched -- well, watch the newspaper.
Even in the case of Lyle Heavyrunner, who is a good man and a capable leader (as well as posing for one of the buffalo hunters in Bob Scriver’s major bronze called “Real Meat”), is only a member of one branch of the Eagle Calf (John Ground) family and the branches are not unanimous among themselves. Add the complication of several different tribes intermarrying and interacting (or parts of tribes since no two tribes merged -- certainly not traditional enemies like the Sioux and Blackfeet) and the fact that some of these artifacts (Black Elk’s) possibly represent a synergy with Christianity, and entitlement becomes very cloudy.
Sioux are not a prominent tribe of Montana, are they? Aren’t they a South Dakota-based tribe these days? Or maybe Hollywood-based? (The pattern has been that Sioux play the parts and Blackfeet do the dangerous stunts and provide the horses.) Are the Sioux willing to let these materials stay in Montana or are they going to come over and claim them back the way the Blackfeet went up to Edmonton and demanded back the materials Bob Scriver sold up there?
As long as we’re talking about the Scriver artifact collection (which included a gun collection and a RCMP uniform collection), it should be noted that the materials defined as “Sacred Bundles” soon left the Royal Alberta Museum as “loans” to the Blackfoot groups in Alberta and possibly a sale to a Montana Blackfeet person. Also, Scriver artifact materials that were NOT in the sale to the RAM, were impounded at the border when they were sent north by Lorraine Scriver and/or returned to Lorraine Scriver by the RAM curator. They were left for safekeeping at the Montana Historical Society, but impounded by Fish & Game, and went from there back to individuals in the Blackfeet Tribe not representing the tribe as a whole, who has no suitable secure repository anyway.
The Museum of the Plains Indian remains the property of the US Government, who has tried to give it to the tribe, who will not accept it because they also want enough money to maintain the Museum. As standards for museums keep rising -- climate control, access, insurance -- and because the Museum is built on a flood plain (like much of Browning), this is problematic. The damage from the 1964 flood, which destroyed much valuable material plus damaging the foundation, has never been repaired. (This was a war-time no-frills build financed by the Crafts Association of the US Government and the Lions Clubs of America.) The bottom line is whether the university system is capable of guarding and preserving the Miller collection.
The nature of institutions is that they have very weak memories, especially since the people with expertise often come from elsewhere and don’t know the local history and culture. Institutions are political animals and if anyone thinks that the “white” population of Montana is less divided than the historical and present Indian population, they haven’t been paying attention. In an era when institutions are never properly funded -- partly because of so many competing needs like poverty, crop failure, wildfire, and weather disasters and partly because of resistance to taxes and regulation -- institutions are far more tempted than usual to deaccession materials to fund salaries and maintenance. It has been a scandal everywhere.
In this Miller case, the anonymity of the selling party, masked behind representatives, is traditional. It is unclear how the legal owners acquired the collection. Also unclear is how much compensation those representatives are expecting: the honor of it all? Friendship? A percentage? It also worries me that the appraiser is nameless: he could be anyone, maybe the present Museum Services Manager of the Montana Historical Society, an expert on Native American materials who was let go from the Portland Art Museum. (The reason for parting was temperament, not irregularities with his work.) Appraisers are normally paid, sometimes a percentage of the value of what they are appraising, a practice that probably needs to be rethought.
Another factor is the copyright issue in regards to such materials as Miller’s 1957 book: “Custer’s Fall: the Indian Side of the Story.” The law has been changed so much in the past few years, sometimes with retroactive inclusions, that an expert would be needed to confirm that indeed the materials were still under copyright rather than public domain. (Someone is recasting Scriver bronzes copyrighted in the Fifties, I assume because they think they are public domain.) Beyond that, copyright rests on the absence of challenges from the persons who are rightfully entitled to the materials. Who would try to declare standing in the case of Miller’s writing and photographs? Does he have descendants? Why are they not identified?
My last point is a bit of a niggle, but I’m going to put it in just the same. Adolph Hungry Wolf (some people will quit reading at this point) personally and at his own expense, both money and effort over decades, has published a four-book compendium of photos and documents specifically about the South Piegan Blackfeet in every aspect. Anyone can buy it for $400 and have a lot more on hand than the Miller collection.
Unless one is looking for war trophies. Maybe the wars have continued, but more subtly than just killing an enemy outright. Oh, and since it seems to have dropped out of institutional memory, Bob Scriver played an important part in the Exalted Ruler effort by creating a small bronze that was sold in large numbers.