Saturday, December 22, 2012


In the summer of 1937 just as Europe teetered on the lip of what would become WWII and Wallis Simpson nabbed George VIII off the throne of England, Winston Churchill’s cousin, Clare Sheridan, left the docks of New York City to drive her Brit V-8 with right-hand steering cross-country to the Blackfeet Reservation.  She made slow progress because of a radiator that constantly boiled over until a German-American mechanic simply replaced the radiator.  Her goal was the Winold and Hans Reiss’ art school on the banks of St. Mary’s Lake.  She was a sculptor noted for her bust portraits of famous people: Stalin, Gandhi, Trotsky, Churchill -- but not Mussolini, who turned out to be a cad.

Just up the hill from the art school was a cluster of cabins built by Browning merchants, including the TE Scriver family.  Bob Scriver, who also became a sculptor, got his first wife pregnant just as school started in 1937 and took her to Cardston for a shotgun marriage that November about the time Clare left for England, this time driving to San Francisco and taking a ship through the Panama Canal for home.  It was time for her to debrief.  There is no evidence at all that Clare and Bob Scriver ever met, much less knew each other, and no hint at all that Clare was gathering evidence for the coming war, but I have no doubt of either.

Until a few weeks ago the only wisp of information I had about Clare was an account of someone in English society who wore a bright yellow coat with a human scalp pinned on each shoulder.  The scalps were a gift from Blackfeet friends, and she chose yellow because of its association with artifacts here.  Then recently Joyce Thomas, a Great Falls artist who was also a member of the Great Falls Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in the Eighties when I was their circuit-riding minister, sent me a book:  “Cousin Clare, The Tempestuous Career of Clare Sheridan,” by  Anita Leslie.  Following the clues, I soon acquired “Redskin Interlude” by Clare Sheridan herself.  You might remember that Churchill, through his mother, one of the famous Jerome sisters, had a bit of Algonquin blood.

These people, including Joyce who has just now come by her aunt’s estate and papers (Norma Smith taught in a one-room rez school on Two Medicine), were entwined with one another through kinship and friendship, art and literature.  They all traveled and wrote about it, they were all keenly aware of world events, and never shirked from participation.  Their lives were difficult, terrifying, sometimes tragic, always productive, and never dull.  Sometimes they had money, but rarely enough.  Clare herself was a nomad, though she had fixed points of rest in Ireland and French North Africa.  More than a few, like Clare, sojourned on the Blackfeet reservation and wrote books about it.

Most of us here know about Winold Reiss’ portraits of Blackfeet and his sponsorship of young tribal artists who later became famous.  The C.M. Russell Museum owns many works.  Fewer realize that Winold’s brother Hans, who was a mountain climber and trekker as well as a sculptor, was the first brother here and created the big wooden Indian that usually stands at the entrance of the Big Hotel in East Glacier.  He was the one who guided Clare to the school and taught her how to carve tree trunks.  Because of the loss of a dear child, she tended to create religious sculptures, a tall Madonna for instance.

A Portrait of Hans Reiss by Winold Reiss

Most of the attention to the east slope of the Rockies is focussed south of Glacier Park or on the Park itself.  The Blackfeet reservation and the area just north, which is patched with Canadian reservations, is less well-known.  To the “over-classes” of Europe and the eastern US, this was as interesting as Africa.  Indeed, Queen Elizabeth II has owned ranches and fine horses in the area.  In wartime, of course, it was the oil-bearing land here that was of major interest.  It still is.

The Blackfeet -- in all their sub-categories and confederations -- have been fierce defenders of their territory and then, seeing the inevitable, became diplomats playing the long game of survival.  Clare had some close relationships with tribal council members like Levi Bird, which locals may have interpreted as romantic but which I’m willing to bet had a lot to do with international high stakes political poker.  These Blackfeet men went in and out of Washington, D.C., crossed the 49th parallel at will, and acquired networks of influence that stretched back to the earliest aristocrats who came up on the Missouri on steamships.  Hudson’s Bay, after all, was an English company that ran the Canadian prairies.

Neither “Cousin Clare” nor “Redskin Interlude” explores all this, but instead gives a novelist’s view of a lady used to roughing it and gradually being drawn into a half-Irish household of tribal people.  She gives the usual accounts of the Baker Massacre, of Medicine Pipe Bundles and Sun Dances, some Blackfeet vocabulary, the inconvenient gumbo mud roads, and distracts everyone with her pet bear, for whom she bought cases of canned plums and honey, even though the family she lived with -- like the other enrolled people -- were starving on government allotments of meat.  But the family didn’t resent what the bear ate -- they were as fascinated as Clare was.  In the end, of course, the bear had to be released in Banff, too cranky to be a pet anymore.  She constantly gave gifts to her adopted family (often materials) and they, likewise, gave gifts back to her (usually things they made) until on major occasions they all decked themselves out from a sort of pooled inventory of fine things, unattributed to formal ownership.

Closer to Lone Wolf, James Willard Schultz’s son, than she was to the father, and closer yet to Hans Reiss, Clare was an intrepid amateur anthropologist, qualified by her ability to fall in love (ama-teur) as well as closely observe.  She had a gift for friendship with people nothing like herself and had the Brit adventurers’ amused attitude towards hardship.  Unlike McClintock, who was an earlier rez visitor, she didn’t return after that one summer, but her influence no doubt lingered on the prairie and back in Europe.  

Other artists and writers have visited this “last best place” but most of them have had neither the grace nor the intelligence of Clare Sheridan, to say nothing of what may have been a secret portfolio in a war to save civilization. 


Ron Scheer said...

Interesting. I just started reading Therese Broderick's THE BRAND (1909) which is set on the Blackfeet Reservation. Wondered what you knew about her and the novel.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

"The Brand" by Therese Broderick is on the FLATHEAD reservation which is entirely different -- the Rockies are between Flatheads and Blackfeets. Victor Auld, a young artist here in the Sixties, had a mother from one tribe and a father from the other. He used to say he was either a Flatfeet or a Blackhead.

I'll keep an eye out for this Broderick person. Writing about the time the railroad finally got across the Rockies.

Prairie Mary