Friday, November 13, 2009

INDIAN ARTIFACTS: JOHN HELLSON

Here comes a story at the opposite extreme from the Uhlenbeck’s, one I can only tell now because a confirming article showed up through Google. I had to pay $4 to get a copy from the New York Times, but I already knew the information. I was just afraid to use it for fear of a libel case.

In the Sixties in Browning, Montana, I was married to Bob Scriver, a sculptor of Western subjects, including the Blackfeet. He was born in Browning in 1914, probably one of the first white babies, grew up there, taught school and led bands there, opened a taxidermy shop, then a museum, and finally became well-known as one of the best and most authentic of the Cowboy Artists of America. He was also a member of the National Sculpture Society at a time when cowboy artists were normally ghettoized. In the end he died there in Browning.

While I was with Bob, and I mean lying alongside him one morning on waking, he described a dream. It was a dream meaning that he should become the Keeper of a Thunder Pipe Bundle. In those days most people weren’t aware of such a thing, not even many of the tribal members, esp. the younger ones. We knew because a man named John Hellson had been stopping by with his wife, Diane, a beautiful young woman from a prominent Blood family, and their kids, bright-eyed, smart little guys. He had introduced Bob to a whole new class of artifacts, Sacred Bundles, very different from the fancy beaded parade gear that most people in Browning admired. In fact, when Bob was leading the Indian Band, he wore a buckskin beaded suit he had paid a woman to make for him. It was not sacred.

Sacred Bundles didn’t mean a whole lot until you knew the story behind them. The last few of the old people who kept them were careful not to talk about them, even though an example of one of the Thunder Pipes hung in the Museum of the Plains Indian on the edge of town. John explained it all. Bob was entirely captured by these ideas. He was not a strong Christian, but he was very much of the “place” which is the essence of autochthonous culture.

John was about the same size as Bob, a Brit with intense blue eyes and a beard. He told us he was a pugilist in Cornwall, which was why he had no teeth. He had that kind of square, confrontive build and manner. Somehow his credentials and employment were a little mysterious, but that wasn’t unusual among the steady procession of people who had mysteriously acquired a great deal of knowledge and a certain number of artifacts. He was intense, eloquent, and seductive. On Feb 5, 2006, I put his photo in my blog. He did NOT like his photo to be taken.

John guided Bob through the acquisition of Tom Many Guns’ Medicine Pipe Bundle. Tom had been an informant for anthropologists and was still an active member of the Bundle Opening ceremony every spring, but he was aging, had a tendency to be thirsty, and was rumored to be selling little pieces of the Bundle contents. Bob wrapped on a blanket, took along a regular Blackfeet smoking pipe, presented himself to Tom with other gifts plus money, and eventually that Bundle was transferred to us in the traditional Indian Way. Richard Little Dog was the ceremonialist. A lot of money changed hands, a good deal of it going to John Hellson as the broker. John had had many Bundles transferred to himself.

I want to emphasize that for our part we were totally sincere and respectful. The only person who was cranky about the ceremony was Tom Many Guns’ wife, Margaret, who was used to the ceremonial status. The others were agreeable, or so it seemed. This was fifty years ago. The present Bundle Keepers were children. The Sacred Bundles in Bob’s artifact book, “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains” are from John Hellson, with a few exceptions. They were acquired after Bob divorced me in 1970. They are extremely controversial and all have been put back into tribal custody by the Royal Alberta Museum.

In September, 1981, John was sentenced for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of irreplaceable anthropological treasures from the University of California's Lowie Museum. Normally such thefts are hushed up. I’ve talked to more than one Blackfeet who boasted about stealing from exhibits at the Montana Historical Society, which denies such acts vehemently. There were always thefts from Bob Scriver.

The article went on, “The museum's management refused to follow the usual practice of close-mouthed acceptance of such thefts, Mr. Norick said, and school authorities insisted that Mr. Hellson be prosecuted. The Alameda County district attorney's office accepted a plea bargain arrangement under which Mr. Hellson pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and received the two-year prison sentence. No other prosecutions are pending.”

The article said, “He presided over the carrying off of $500,000 worth of artifacts. This week he received a two-year prison sentence.” His marriage was over. And the article said, “The Lowie Museum's problem has elements in common with theft problems at art museums, where charges of improper trading and other actions against the museums' interests have also been made against curators and directors in several institutions.” This was also allegedly true of Mike Kennedy, the director of the Montana Historical Society in the Sixties, but I haven’t found any documentation. I’m just remembering.

The point is that some artifacts collectors are plainly and frankly thieves -- ferociously informed and sometimes with good credentials, fueled by greed, enabled by insiders and I mean insider members of the tribes as well as white opportunists. I could name a dozen but would be well-advised not to without proof.

When I wrote the biography of Bob Scriver, “Bronze Inside and Out,” I tried to locate John Hellson, even though I knew that when Bob was organizing his artifact book by photographing all the work he was selling to the Royal Alberta Museum and actually paid John to curate the artifacts, even knowing he’d just gotten out of jail for stealing, John rewarded him by stealing three or four pieces of Bob’s he could get into his pocket, including a grizzly claw necklace. Bob realized it, put out the alarm, located a few pieces in the SW, and sent a police officer named Rooney to bring them back. There was a warrant for Hellson’s arrest which expired when Bob died in 1999.

What has recently renewed interest in John Hellson is the case against a Montana fellow named Brubaker, who stole books and pages from libraries. The two of them, now in their seventies, were traveling together until Brubaker was arrested. He’s now serving a thirty month sentence. But that’s not about Indian artifacts. It’s about books.

1 comment:

Lance Michael Foster said...

I remember hearing in the mid-late 1980s that the Montana Historical Society had a couple of those old garage spaces out at the Fairgrounds that it used for overflow storage of artifacts and such. They were secured by nothing more than padlocks. Apparently someone broke into them at the time and stole a bunch of stuff, including several very nice buffalo robes and other tribal items.

When I did my M.A. thesis on my tribal bundles, I visited the museum where they were stored. Most of the bundles had been opened and the components removed and scattered about. Some I was able to locate in the collection in various places, others were missing.

I was able to read the original correspondence (1910s-20s) between the collector and the museum. There was an inordinate glee on the part of the collector, and a cautious no-ask-no-tell policy from the museum's side. I remember one letter where the collector said, "hey, if anyone asks about these certain items that disappeared from the Keeper, tell them I bought them fair and square." He also relished the name given him as "an Indian name" by one of the tribes, called "Little Weasel." But he died mysteriously in a one-car accident on a reservation road on one of his collection trips.

These Trickster types who steal things and lie, well, I hope they know their tribal stories. If they don't believe in such stuff, but are only interested in the money, and bragging rights status among their little circle of collectors, that's on them. But I hope they know their stories, because there are lots where either a bundle or medicine is stolen or claimed or used wrongly, and it is disastrous to Coyote, or Trickster, etc. Bad things tend to happen to people like that from the Otherworld. But they bring it on themselves. Sad thing is, the bad things start with their friends, family, loved ones, and then work towards the offender. That's to make the offender suffer all the more, knowing they were ultimately the ones who caused their loved one's pain.