Thursday, August 14, 2008


An older Indian lady who has spent nearly her entire working life in big cities doing office work for government agencies calls me up occasionally and tells me all sorts of lies and half-truths about people she doesn’t like, most often white people but also competitors. I let her rave on, though I often feel as though I were trapped in a Louise Erdrich novel. One day, one of the few times I ever lost patience with her, she gave me hell because she claimed Bob Scriver was “stealing” the faces of the Blackfeet. “Just look at the faces of his sculptures,” she said. “Those are Blackfeet faces! He had no right to steal those faces!”

Evidently in all her city days and education she never encountered the idea of the “portrait,” which is SUPPOSED to look like the person one is portraying! Evidently in her time back on the rez she never picked up the information that the faces looked like the people who posed for the sculptures because Bob asked them and paid them to pose! A few were portrayed using the old photos of Blackfeet that are all over the place in this part of the country, taken when it was still believed that Indians would soon disappear.

To be honest -- by that time the people were no longer living in the old way and had to scrounge around for their grandparents’ gear so they would look “authentic” to the photographer. Anyway, the photographer’s portraits have been used over and over and over again by painters, sometimes with considerable skill and other times not. One of the more vivid recent versions has been the work of Tom Gilleon ( whose signature is the division of a canvas into nine equal parts with a grid and then filling each square with a vivid sketch of an Indian’s face or an Indian artifact. (He is also famous for his many variations on the theme of a single tipi or lodge on a mystical landscape.) The classic portraitist of the Blackfeet was Winold Reiss ( who painted the Blackfeet from life.

Where did this old lady’s objections come from? She is certainly a genetic Blackfeet and she is certainly somewhat aware of a body of theory that developed in France, Algiers, and then Berkeley, California, about how indigenous people are exploited by colonialists, though I doubt she could name those thinkers. Rather than taking the practical and legal approach of Eloise Cobell and Earl Old Person, who are suing the U.S. Government for the money the USA brazenly diverted from the Individual Indian Accounts over the years, money they were supposed to be holding in trust to protect, these theory-based critics were saying that any depiction in any arts were taking money out of their pockets, because THEY should be the only ones entitled to write about themselves or paint their portraits or take their photos. Whether they could do it well is beside the point, to their minds. They remember being tipped a dollar for permitting their picture to be taken by a tourist at Indian Days. Some go so far as to say that since the novel is a literary form that developed in Europe, it is an “un-Indian” art form and no Indian should be depicted in a novel. Any Indian writer who writes novels (they’re after Erdrich and Welch because of their success) is un-Indian. Of course, they constantly comb tribal rolls for evidence of legal status.

Non-Indians come at this from a different angle. Often they claim to have a special affinity for Indians, a compassion that gives them unique insight and entitlement to act on their behalf. (Some animal lovers also claim this.) Or maybe they take the position that only anthropologists know the “real truth” about a specific tribe and since they know the anthro lit, they are entitled to decide what is or isn’t authentic. (The only Indians who count are the ones at first contact, uncontaminated.) They are even willing to tell old-timers that they’re going about being Indians “all wrong,” though no one ever issued handbooks as though Indians were Boy Scouts. Anyway, these people take no account that we are now in the 21st century, not the 19th.

Of course, even the spearhead of the whole radical theory movement as it worked out in the Red Empowerment organization (some say DISorganization) called AIM, as fronted by Russell Means and Dennis Banks, was quick to sell out to go act in romantic Hollywood inventions like “The Deerslayer” or “Dances with Wolves.” They were a bit nonplussed by a gritty and more accurate movie like “Skins,” which was written by Adrian Louis, one of the most realistic and eloquent of NA authors. They never seem to know what to think about the fine professional actors Graham Greene or Tantoo Cardinal, also authentic. But a lot of whites wondered why those two would act in a movie made from a book by a nonIndian former KKK member, “The Education of Little Tree” by a man named Carter. (Maybe they needed work?)

Certain scholars set themselves up to sort the “sheep” from the “goats” with the usual binary black-and-white thinking that characterizes Euros, though some of the scholars were Indian. This created a climate in which “permission” was granted to savage whichever people were designated as “fake.” This baggy, incoherent, emotional and inconsistently enforced category included a multitude of artists and writers. People like Howard Terpning were given a pass, because he made it a point to come to reservations, spread around some money and praise, give key people some prints, and then leave before anyone got mad. People like Richard Lancaster were given a pass because he was too scary in person and because unmasking him would have meant bringing unpleasant things about families out in the open.

Some of the people who were thought to be irreproachable by whites not on the rez, like Jim Welch, were criticized by his “fellow tribesmen,” but Adolf Hungry-Wolf, who is frankly white but devoted to the 19th century life of the Blackfeet (I know of no rez people who live as Adolf does or who knows and practices the ceremonials as completely as he does or who has preserved photos with more devotion), is constantly assailed for being a phony. Clearly, “phoniness” depends largely on who’s on the payroll and which tribal contingent they belong to -- because it’s VERY clear to anyone who lives here for a while that a tribe is fractured in every which way: blood, provenance, feuds, family allegiance, wealth, leadership offices, location on the rez, and a hundred other directions. Yet people refer to them as “the Indians,” as though they were one lump.

In fact, all this quarreling and name-calling is so time-consuming and potentially expensive (ask any lawyer what the fees might be) that many producers and publishers are reluctant to have anything at all to do with Indians. Even universities, tired of lawsuits, have quietly shut down their departments of Native American studies and the once-hot professors have retired. The once brilliant Native American Renaissance of literature is over. One might suggest it committed suicide.

The latest source of indignation is tourists who take photos of Chief Mountain in Glacier Park without asking permission from the Blackfeet Tribe, since it is a sacred mountain. Clearly these people are taking the French as role models. The French recently embarrassed themselves by demanding that no tourists take photos of the Eiffel Tower without asking permission. They stopped short of claiming it was sacred.


Chas S. Clifton said...

"Trapped in a Louise Erdrich novel" -- I love it.

But I thought that being offended was something White People Liked.

prairie mary said...

Being offended is one thing -- being totally outraged and demanding money for it is something else.

Is there a blog for "what Red people like?"

Prairie Mary

Old Scrote said...

It's all very sad, isn't it? Similar nonsense has happened in Britain, where the Race Relations industry has destroyed the very tolerance it was set up to promote. I use the word "industry" advisedly.

Chas S. Clifton said...

There are already several imitators of that blog-and-now-book:

Stuff Black People Love

Stuff Educated Black People Like

I predict that as with the "Chicken Soup for ..." books, there will soon be one for everyone.

Multiculturalism works best (if it works) when it is anarchic and not controlled by (as Jake says) the Race Relations Industry.

Rebecca Clayton said...

The same thing goes on with "real" Appalachian people and culture these days--one could go through your essay and substitute "Appalachian" for "Blackfeet" and have a good description of what goes on here.

Of course, there is a Cherokee component to "real" Appalachia--although it's so dilute, remote, and romanticized it's hard to know how "real" it is.

Art Durkee said...

As a pro photographer (I'll be passing through your neck of the woods in a few weeks, BTW), I did some research into photo permissions. The laws are are a bit vague, and where there is no federal law, the local laws take precedence, of course.

But the basic rule of thumb is, photos taken in public spaces, such as public lands, national parks, etc., need no permissions. If you are standing in a public space and can see the mountain, you can photograph it.

One should always be respectful of local customs, of course. Like, don't take photos of the sacred dances at the Pueblos, especially when they ask you not to.

In privately-owned spaces, asking permission is usually required. But it's a little gray about what permission means. Exchange of money doesn't always apply. Is the Rez public land, or private land? Someone's house is usually considered private land. But how does Blackfeet culture interpret "ownership"?

I do my best to be respectful. AND I'm a photographer. Most of the time, I find being nice, and respectful, to be all that anybody ever wants or needs.

It strikes me that your acquaintance just has a major militancy chip on her shoulder. I certainly understand why. (John Trudell is someone I've been following a long time.) But I wonder where she draws the lines on ownership: maybe where SHE thinks they should be, rather than where they actually are?