Saturday, May 29, 2010


When I googled the phrase “remnant anthropology” nothing came up, so I don’t know whether it’s technically supposed to refer to either anthropology done with a remnant group of people from a defined culture or whether it’s about the impulse to “save” as much as possible of a culture clearly doomed. Maybe it’s a muddle. Anyway, I’ll go ahead and embroider on an article in “Montana, the Magazine of Western History” called “Following the Old North Trail to Berlin” by Steven L. Grafe in the Spring, 2010, issue.

The article is about the relationship between Walter McClintock and Arthur Nevin, who is NOT the composer of “Narcissus” by ETHELBERT Nevin which I laboriously pounded away at when my piano teacher locked me in a small room with said instrument, saying I could not come out until I mastered the piece. Here’s the url of a YouTube version, much more largo than Mrs. Winter’s notion. She liked spritely. This “Hiawathan” version is illustrated with a portrait of a boy painted by Caravaggio.

But that has nothing to do with Arthur Nevin and Walter McClintock who visited the Blackfeet Reservation in 1903 with the goal of creating an opera about a Blackfeet myth called “Poia” around the North Star personified. That was the same year my father-in-law, Thad Scriver, arrived in Browning to make a living in the mercantile trade. He said he did know McClintock, who was still visiting year-after-year in the Forties. This thrilled Bob Scriver, a musician and a bit of a composer. In fact, Bob himself composed a little Christmas operetta about a star performed by the Browning Schools, where he taught. (I hope the music is somewhere in the unprocessed materials the Montana Historical Society owns.) It’s easy to understand why anyone, particularly anyone early in the twentieth century before light pollution developed even in Montana, would be nearly overwhelmed by stars. Today you’d have to go to outer space to see them as they were.

Trying to capture fraying cultures and to reinvent them with “modern” contexts like opera (though opera itself was meant to recapture the dimensions of Greek tragedy) is Romantic. The grip of this point of view is so strong that even the Native Americans have now begun to chafe against it, because it insists on the 19th century outsider view that sees “other” cultures as innocently childlike, noble, and idealized. Anything that seems adult or businesslike finds no sympathy. Romantics would have no problem with Arthur Nevin who was apparently quite childlike and impractical. I googled and found this vid, which has nothing to do with Nevin or Blackfeet, but is an excellent depiction of the Romantic attitude: a lone yearning man traveling through nature. At this website is a quite Romantic version of the actual legend. To no avail I looked for a recording of the music. If I find it later, I’ll post the url.

“Indianist” composers of this period tended to be naive, offering music like “Song of Hiawatha” with its BOOM-buh-buh-buh, BOOM-buh-buh-buh “tom-toms” and no consciousness of the sonnet-like structure of indigenous songs. Still, McClintock did his best to steer Nevin to reality. “The Old North Trail” records the melodies of a number of songs of the Blackfeet.

In 1903 the buffalo had been gone for decades and the hide lodges had all worn out, which is why McClintock’s metaphor of lodges as lanterns was inspired by firelight inside canvas tipis. The people had mostly been born since the 1850 prairie treaties and were living within the boundaries of reservations, but they had not greatly changed their ways and kept their ceremonies alive to the extent that the Indian agents and missionaries would tolerate them. In fact, they survived underground until the Sixties and lately have revived. On page 48 is a photo of the handsome and preening Nevin, who has just had his face ceremonially painted as a sign of blessing. On page 47 Mad Wolf and Gives to the Sun are photographed with their Medicine Pipe Bundle on a tripod. The pipe Mad Wolf is holding is NOT a Medicine Pipe but a traditional social pipe with a Sioux red stone bowl. Smoking structured many gatherings in something like the same way as serving coffee.

When Nevin and McClintock went to Berlin, hoping to find support for “Poia,” they were helped by the American-born Lillie Greenough de Hegerman-Lindencrone, who was married to the Danish ambassador to Germany. She was a singer and a lady-in-waiting to the German empress. (Talk about a Romantic context!) Bob Scriver’s first wife was the granddaughter of a Greenough woman. This has absolutely no significance whatsoever, but artists and musicians grasp at straws, so Bob would have liked to have known.

Not only was there insufficient support for the opera in Berlin, but when it was finally presented (somewhat entangled in the personality of Teddy Roosevelt and German contempt for the underside of Romantic which is primitive savagery) it was booed from the stage and went broke. “Poia” lay dormant until the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial revival of all things peripheral. Even then, the more sophisticated and contemporary opera, “Summer Sun, Winter Moon,” by the warm and accessible composer Rob Kapilow with libretto by Darrell Kipp, was more appealing to some. There ARE other Indian operas. In 1951 my family attended an open air version of “Bridge of the Gods” which personified the great volcanic peaks of the Cascades in a love story.

Arthur Nevin blamed all the troubles of “Poia” on McClintock, but I reject that notion, just as I reject the accusation by Sherry Smith in her book “Reimagining Indians” that McClintock betrayed the Blackfeet by not doing battle in Washington, D.C., to bring about better political outcomes. It’s true enough that McClintock, with his tales and photos of the early century and his Romantic attitude throughout his lecture and “anthropology” career, didn’t think much about the coming world. But he was a young man with a good education (Yale), a true friendship with Mad Wolf, and the financial resources (mercantile father) to bring generous gifts every year. “The Old North Trail” is a MAJOR contribution. McClintock never married and no doubt someone will make something of that. (Nevin married an older woman with children.)

History is a tricky business. World-views of the time become unintelligible, let along indefensible. Anthropology is even now trying to re-frame itself in some way that can get outside culture, since our own 20th century assumptions have become remnants. But how can one be human without some kind of culture, whether remnant, constructed or simply unconscious? Can we be blamed for loving the Romantic and the Operatic?

1 comment:

Cat Lobere said...

Very interesting copy. I have tried to produce 'Poia' in CA(the Bay Area) after seeing it in Great Falls. (My family is Blackfeet/Sioux and I am a trained opera singer.) So far no go, but am not giving up. Your article gives me more spirit to persevere! Thanks.