Saturday, August 23, 2008


Today (Friday) the Piegan Institute presented “Si’naaki,” the images of the Blackfeet people. First some time-lines. This is the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Piegan Institute. It is the fourteenth year the Blackfeet Immersion School has existed. (Eighty percent of the students on the Browning High School honor roll have been students in the Immersion School.) And this is the eleventh of the these mid-August history conferences organized by Roselyn LaPier.

The first speaker was DAVE BECK, who is delighted to be married to Roselyn, esp. in view of their terrific daughters who always get pressed into service at these events in the same way that Blackfeet kids have always been aides to hospitality, even at old-time ceremonials, though these girls do not keep tobacco pipes lit, which used to be an important duty of the orderlies. Dave was addressing the famous Edward Curtis photographs, which are now available online at and other places. The question is “Was Curtis presenting cultural images or was he reinforcing stereotypes?” The answer is both.

Curtis lived 1868 to 1952.
In 1898 he met George Bird Grinnell, a “scientist” with connections to Indians.
Through Grinnell he was on the Blackfeet Reservation to photograph the 1900 Okan or Sun Dance.
In 1906 he was scrambling to get funding for a twenty volume work that would include photos of ALL Indians “before they vanished.” 227 people signed up for subscriptions to all the volumes. J.P. Morgan was among them and helped with a little extra funding. They were particularly interested in the Piegan religion.
In 1910 Curtis made another visit to the Blackfeet and this time there were many artists and anthropologists around.
In 1930 the final volume of the set called “The North American Indian” was printed and distributed.
This sort of pressing documentation of what is thought to be disappearing is called “Salvage Anthropology,” because it is felt that perhaps some crucial information can be permanently recorded. The Smithsonian is sponsoring a parallel “Handbook” but has finished only 15 books of 20 planned. The Plains Indian book is done. The editor has been Frederick Webb Hodge.

Here are the Federal Indian Policy Periods:
1. Treaty making/removal: 1778-1871
2. Forced assimilation: 1887-1934
3. Reorganization: 1934-1950’s
4. Termination/Relocation 1950’s to the 1970’s
5. Self-determination: 1970’s to the present.
(Sol Tax, anthropologist at the U of Chicago, said, “there has only really been one federal Indian policy: “to figure out how to get out of the Indian business.” My own comment: ordering the BIA to make itself unnecessary is ineffective.)

Curtis -- along with Grinnell, Ulenbeck, Wissler, and the artists who came through on the railroad -- was part of a great flurry of activity in the forced assimilation period when people believed that Indians were doomed. The characteristics of forced assimilation were:
* to outlaw tribal religion (though some sympathetic authorities looked the other way)
* to outlaw tribal governments
* the allotment of lands (1887 Dawes Act)
* boarding schools
* population decline (1883 is the Starvation Winter)
* belief in “social Darwinism” which grouped “races” hierarchically with the white Euro males at the top and NA’s or blacks (labeled "savages") at the bottom. (The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago had demonstration village groups arranged to show the progression. My own comment: At the same time, this was the first World Religion conference that included Indians such as Simon Pokagon.)

Impacts of Edward Curtis’ work:
* preserves a connection to the past
* helps to convince Americans that Indians are disappearing
* sometimes contradicts the community knowledge base

The Curtis technique:
* photos were staged
* props from trunks were provided, more colorful than accurate
* romanticized Indians and their lives
* preserved likenesses of people and places, though they were sometimes misleading.

There are two new digitization projects:
NU and the Library of Congress
Washington DC and the U of Montana (documents)

Criticisms, some from the audience:
Despite their flaws, the photos are a valuable resource.
The Indians’ names were rarely recorded! The accompanying notes often put the names down, but they were dropped out of the captions. They became just generic “Indians,” though the white people were named. Indian clothing became “costumes” as though they were not real. They were “dress-up” best.

Beck’s calm presentation was free of demonizing and accusations of evil intent. Neither did he excuse anyone. What was, simply was, and it’s our job to figure out what to do with it. The photos speak for themselves.

These presentations would not have been so richly rewarding or even possible without the projector laptop throwing the pictures up on the wall. Darrell told about opening up Bill Farr’s photo book of the Blackfeet (“Reservation Blackfeet, 1882-1945”) and finding in front of him a photo of his own grandmother! He did not OWN a photo of his grandmother! Later he took some budding tribal college historians up to the Glenbow Museum library. They were all intent on hitting the mall, but Darrell managed to make them agree to stay an hour. Then one girl, going through a big pile of images, came upon a likeness of herself! Except that it wasn’t her -- it was her great-grandmother, who looked just like her. Heck with the mall! They stayed until closing.

BILL FARR’s presentation was about Walter McClintock, but he listed some other early photographers: Charles Stevens (or Stephens?) in the 1890’s, Fred Kresler (sp?), Roland Reid, and Thomas B. Magee who was local.

Walter McClintock came in 1896 for the first time as an artist accompanying a survey of forest lands. He fell in love with the place and returned every year until the 1912’s. From 1912 to 1940 he came often, but sometimes missed a year. Between 1903 and 1912 he took more than 2,000 photos that are extant. No one knows how many discards there were. He was particularly interested in the Sun Dance and came early so that he could record the preparations. He valued the remote and the old-timey. Then for many years he toured and lectured, showing his photos. He had pretty much one version, his first one, and didn’t revise it. His great gift was “intimacy,” being accepted as one of the family so that people relaxed, sort of forgot he was there, and just let things be, so that sometimes stuff like an alarm clock in a tipi gives away the true period and has to be airbrushed out.

Why was this eager, absorbed young man given such access? He came in July, 1896, just as the Blackfeet were beginning to emerge from thirty desperate years. The first Whitecalf described the tribe as being “lost in the fog” and Curly Bear remarked that a “dim mist was clearing.” What turned the tide was the arrival of the railroad, which suddenly gave access to the outside world. People stepped off the train from Chicago and Seattle every day. The center of gravity on the reservation shifted from the south along the traversable rivers to alongside the railroad. And stuff began to arrive as the Mercantiles replaced the old Trading Posts. The alarm clocks were here! The people pored over their Sears Roebucks and Monkey Wards catalogues. (Insert joke about the old chief who ordered a good sturdy woman from the corset section, only to be heartbroken when he opened the package and discovered she had escaped, leaving only her underwear!)

McClintock’s success was due in part to his close partnership with Siksicogwan (Blackfeet Man) AKA Billy Jackson and his nephew, Alex Fox (Yellow Bird) who ranched on the Milk River. There McClintock appears to have imbibed Hudson’s Bay rum in quantity and to have found a “fat and sassy” girl friend (sans corset). In those days, 1898, he had to get a pass to visit on the reservation which provides a bit of detail, but his personality remains a bit of a mystery. He was present but not deep into the reservation innards.

Siyeh (Mad Wolf) took the next step by adopting him and naming him White Weasel Moccasin. Adoption in those days was a formal strategy for creating bonds and bestowing obligations: there is a record of a chief who adopted an Eastern man and sent him a letter asking him to get a red bird (cardinal) to wear on his hat, because it is the obligation of a good son to make his father happy. Adoption of this sort was not an idle formality. It was more like a marriage that ties two families together so that there is greater access to knowledge and power, explanations and advocates. McClintock brought boxes of goods when he came.

Siyeh had never adopted anyone before (at least not whites) so why did he do it now? Probably it was the example of George Bird Grinnell being adopted by Four Bears and named “Fisher Cap.” Whitecalf also calls Grinnell his son. Sometimes “the Father of the People.” Tearing Lodge calls Grinnell “the shield of my people.” In other words, they sought to make Grinnell responsible for the tribe and it worked pretty well to the extent that Grinnell had power, but he sometimes got caught by conflicting motives, as when he helped to force the selling of Glacier Park.

By 1895 Mad Wolf was disillusioned and said “the old leadership is unraveling.” Many older men retreated to ritual lives. Mad Wolf may have hoped that McClintock would be a new and younger Grinnell. The two had more in common than he knew, since both were Yalies. Mad Wolf wanted to push the claims for the common hunting grounds that had never been satisfied.

McClintock was a political zero, but did record many things at a time when the younger Blackfeet were wanting to move on, to be modern and participate in the world. They wear “citizens’ dress” to the Sun lodge. But the old people want a record of their own time and these photos become a “weapon of the weak” self-evidently showing those ready-to-abandon children what the truth was. The photos were direct, intimate, local and forceful, and confronted the identity issues that always plague Indians.

After lunch of buffalo meat and fry bread, DARNELL RIDES AT THE DOOR presented what she called “Indians in a Box,” which was a wonderful overview of her own family from the early days via a box of photos. We saw a portrait of John “Grover” Ground (1890 -1953) at Carlisle Indian School. (This was the grandfather of my friend Leland, who uses the name of “Eagle Calf,” John’s name.) We saw William Langdon Kane’s painting of Old Painted Lodge (1833-1930) the father of John Grover Ground, who was sometimes called “Go to Ground” -- Leland says “Jumps Down to the Ground” because he got off his horse to fight. He was an interpreter and interlocuter.

Darnell skillfully guided us through the years: photos of famous and beloved old Mary Ground who lived to be more than a hundred years old and was a key ceremonialist in spite of having blue eyes. We saw Leland aged maybe four and his older brother John. There was a funny photo of young Gene and John, Mary’s sons, as teens, leaning on their mom and putting their hands on her head like a hat. No one ever did that to the ancient but VERY dignified Mary Ground most of us knew! This is what Farr meant by intimacy, the relaxed joking of related people.

Darnell’s presentation ended with her grandmother, the first Miss Blackfeet, a beautiful young woman who was painted in a borrowed buckskin dress by Winold Reiss. Years later the picture was on the cover of a magazine called “FATE: Witchcraft in Britain Today,” in which she was supposed to be a Crow maiden, her true identity completely lost until her face was recognized.

The last presentation was the most marvelous of all: an overview of the life’s work of VALENTINA LAPIER. Much of her work can be found in images on the Internet by using Google, but it was moving to hear her tell about the pain and despair in her life and how she had found her way back out by painting and other art work. Her work is abstract but iconic, using patterns from traditional clothing and decoration, and stylized horses and trees that have personal meaning for her. This is skillfully done, so that the images are suggestive to anyone and don’t have to be explained. She spoke about going to France and sitting alone in Monet’s garden on a slightly rainy day, totally absorbed into the living colors and shapes. These days she has a gallery and workshop in East Glacier and seems totally confident about what she is doing and who she is.

Those horses will be stampeding through my head tonight as I sleep, along with the horses I saw along Highway 89 on the way up and back. One field held a band of old-time wild mustangs, grey and dun with long tails and manes. In another place a paint horse had ended up outside the fence but was sticking with his band by moving alongside the barbed wire. Two youngsters were running and bucking in the morning, as though playing tag, but had settled into grazing by afternoon. There is a wild flower I’ve never seen in such profusion. It’s purple. I should have stopped to pick a sample, but the most likely candidate seems to be “Silky Phacelia” also called Scorpionweed or Purple Fringe. It’s a little late for it, but everything is late this year. Nora Lukin’s fingers were still stained a little bit purple from picking sarvisberries. She said only about half of them are ripe. Good things still to come.

It’s important to see things and also important to name them. That’s how people know who they are. Best of all is creating new images.

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