Saturday, November 14, 2009


Imagine a gold candlestick: nothing fancy, just a single candle. One person figures it’s only brass. A professional evaluator sees that it’s gold and of very high quality workmanship. To another person it’s the candlestick his grandmother always had on the mantel. Maybe this turns out to be the candlestick that JFK always kept at his bedside at Hyannis Port in case the electricity went out in one of those coastal storms. What if it turns out to have been a holy candlestick on the altar of an early and famous churchman?

Now imagine that someone is selling the candlestick. If it’s the guy who thinks it’s brass selling to the guy who knows it belonged to JFK, the second guy has struck it rich. When what the seller knows and the buyer knows are quite different, it is the value gradient, dependent upon knowledge and expertise, that will make someone a lot of money. The last aspect, sacred, will only be valuable to the extent that the Holiness is recognized. Now you’re looking at the Indian artifact market.

The world is awash with what amounts to cultural detritis, flotsam and jetsam from people who move all the time, who build collections and then discard them, who outgrow one phase or enthusiasm while starting another, who travel and buy memorabilia, then die so their heirs must clean out the house. One of the most popular TV shows is about objects that people bring to an evaluator to see what they are worth, because every now and then something that seems mundane or simply curious turns out to be valuable, even VERY valuable. But to whoever let it go, it was nothing worth keeping. Everyone in Montana knows stories about an old painting stored in a chicken coop that was actually painted by Charlie Russell. In Europe that might be a Rembrandt.

This is probably more true of Indian artifacts than a lot of other categories, like books or art or china or silver. So many tribal objects have been created that were meant for tourist trade or for impressive decoration, that few people would be able to tell real antiquities or even whether the bead-sewing stitches were authentic or whether a buckskin dress were brain-tanned or chrome tanned or sewn with actual sinew or dental floss. And even fewer would be able to identify something particularly sacred or meant for ceremonial use. Many indigenous artifacts are made of humble substances, not diamond-studded gold.

Second-hand stores, “antique” stores, garage sales, yard sales, estate sales, used book stores, art auctions that attract side bazaars in nearby motels where each room is rented by a free-lance entrepreneur or -- more than anything else -- eBay keeps all these objects on the move -- losing some of their provenance as they go but also acquiring new legends meant to enhance value. The newspapers claim Brubaker, the book thief, made $500,000 a year on eBay. I’d bet you money that dozens of people in Great Falls, where he lived, knew he was doing it, didn’t exactly approve but didn’t get worried about it, because it was just “stuff,” not carefully promoted like the art work at the main CM Russell Auction or the materials displayed at the CM Russell Museum.

There is no free-standing Indian museum in Montana except the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning -- which has no budget at all, certainly no way of acquiring materials and no qualified anthropologist to evaluate them. The most persistent and detailed stories about Indian artifacts being stolen and sold by insiders come from this institution. The tribe refuses to take responsibility for it because it is a money sink. The flood in 1964 undermined one side of the foundation and compromised the storage. Much precious material was lost to water damage. They are so nervous about being investigated that they refused to allow Rosalyn LaPier, a highly qualified Ph.D. candidate married to an outstanding scholar, access to the collection and archives. She is a tribal member. The white scholar traveling with her was allowed in. Those controlling access were Blackfeet. Such confusion and anxiety mess up information.

Outsiders have little or no mental picture about these matters. They’re still back in the nineteenth century or maybe the 1950’s when whites still dominated the professions and administrations. Outsiders today would not be able to pick a living Blackfeet Indian out of a line-up, much less valuable NA artifacts. We’re in this strange time when Hollywood costumers and cowboy artists probably know more about NA material culture than the tribes themselves do. I don’t know of any high school that has an “intro to anthro” class nor do I know of any Montana tribal college that does, which is not to say they don’t exist.

The whole point of “wheelin’ and dealin’” is to buy low and sell high. ("Stealin’" is, of course, about as low as you can go, and so is representing a lesser artist’s work as a greater artist’s work as in the recent scandal of the purported Russell that turned out to be a Seltzer.) Finding objects, like arrowheads, is a bending-over sort of serendipity, but many people, esp. in the SW, have profited from removing pots or bones or more elaborate objects by digging them up. With backhoes. They do not care that they are losing value from these objects by taking them out of their context, because they won’t be selling to the people who would appreciate that sort of value, presumably scientific information.

What makes buying Indian artifacts on a reservation so profitable is that the people themselves are likely to be low income, which is to say “needy,” and may be impaired by substance abuse. Also, younger people may have lost the values of the older culture and those converted to the more Taliban-type versions of Christianity may have been told that ancient ceremonial objects are the work of the Devil, which ought to be destroyed.

My personal bias about everything in life is that education is likely to be at least part of the answer. This is particularly true here. Even if the younger people or more corroded people cannot resist selling their people’s material objects, they can at least be taught the real value of them. Diminishing the value differentials should slow down traffic. That would probably effectively curtail if not end much of the vacuuming power of the well-informed swindler.

I’m not even close to ending this series.

1 comment:

Lance Michael Foster said...

In the stories a young man travels to the Above World. There he sees a lodge and enters it. On the walls hang all kinds of sacred bundles. Some are very beautiful and grand, some decorated with many scalps. The Persons there direct him to select a bundle. The young man is wise. He looks them over, and selects the most homely, falling-apart ugly old bundle there. The Persons say, "Who told you to pick that bundle? It is the foremost of all these bundles."

But the problem is, you have to take care of the bundles. They require things: songs, certain treatment, certain sacrifices not easy to get today. The Keeper has to observe strict rules.

Everything else is just playing, just being stupid, just exposing oneself to danger. Like those Nazis in the first Indiana Jones movie. They thought they knew what they were doing. But they were wrong. That Ark was not for them. They paid the price.