Monday, October 07, 2013


The Clarke family, beginning with Malcolm Clarke (1817-1869) attending West Point by pulling strings only to be thrown back out, and ending equally ambiguously with Joyce Clark Turvey (1928-2013) who was an adopted child, is a genealogical trail that leads through complex territory composed of “memes,” the term for culturally transmitted behaviors and beliefs.  From the early marriages “in the fashion of the country,” which is to say partnerships formed (as they often are today) without benefit of any institutional certification, either religious or governmental, to more recent events that living people don't want known, the task of a historian is not easy.

Andrew R. Graybill, the author of “The Red and the White: A Family’s Saga of the American West” is an academic historian and director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University, where he has returned to his Texas roots after his education at prestigious Yale and Princeton and some years at the University of Nebraska, which has been one of the major publishers of Western history.  His book is diplomatic and documented whenever possible, but this is a paper history based on paper records.  He is wary of personal testimony and with good reason.  The “memes” in question are sometimes racist, vengeful, full of emotion and family defensiveness.  Yet they need to be examined, but patiently against a background thrown into chaos by the War Between the States, which is what Graybill provides.

Only a few days ago I was contacted by a woman trying to understand her grandmother, who loved the St. Mary’s valley on the Blackfeet reservation and returned there every summer even in old age, and yet when asked about possible “Indian blood” froze into denial.  The quite “New Age” granddaughter found this incomprehensible.  She told me she had read “every book” about the Blackfeet, but she had not.  What she had read was the conventional, constantly quoted, taught-at-universities books which had not captured reality beyond anthropology and a few facts.  They are circular, like bios of celebrities that repeat old lies because they are colorful.

“The Red and the White” had to be written by an outsider because people saturated with the memes of massacre, blame, trauma, and family loyalty would have been blind even in the face of careful library research.  They would have been forced to take sides and use incendiary adjectives.  Instead, this account is a useful road map of the interlaced trails of economics, temperament, and alliances.  Even just the bibliography alone is worth the price of the book.

I don’t much follow the more traditional histories of this area, mostly white-written and with a big romantic thumb on the scales, meant to defend the reputations of white men, or at least those in power.  (Exceptions might be “Ghost Hunting in Montana” by Barnaby Conrad III -- which does for the Conrads what Graybill does for the Clarkes -- and the quiet work of Jack Holterman, never valued properly, possibly because he was gay.) Mrs. Grundy, the prissy censor, has suppressed the wives of Malcolm Clarke all except Coth-co-co-na, and the Blackfeet themselves have not wanted to see her as a broken victim of her husband’s death, which she was.   I never understood the status of Bill and Nora Spanish until I saw in this book that the first wife of Horace was Margaret Spanish (First Kill). Horace, Malcolm’s son by Coth-co-co-na, was a lifelong tribal politics player -- see Paul Rosier’s primary research in “Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation”.  
This is a simplified version, for which you should be grateful.

Two of the most mysterious and yet omnipresent characters among the recent traditional Blackfeet were “Chief Bull” in Heart Butte and “Kyi-yo” (Bobcat) in Starr School, bilingual brokers in the political struggles.  It turns out they are descended from one of Malcolm Clarke’s earlier wives, “Good Singing” (Akseniski) who was a daughter of Isidoro Sandoval, major frontier figure.  She and Malcolm Clarke had four surviving children, Isidoro the 2nd (b.1856/57) being the first son and the ancestor of both “Chief Bull” and “Kyi-yo.”  There is no room here to explore this, but it’s clear that the Clarke family, like Thomas Jefferson, had a shadow set of siblings.  The drive to power, pride verging on arrogance, a strain of creativity and verbal skill, and tumbling economic fortunes mark all of these generational lines.

Yet Graybill emphasizes, partly I’m sure because of Joyce Turvey’s concerns, that Helen and John, respectively Horace Clarke’s sister and son, were quiet, respectable, achieving people.  If it’s wrong to speak ill of the dead, no history would ever be written.  But no history could capture John Clarke’s complete disregard for social considerations and his single-minded pursuit of his artistic vision, which was sometimes celebrated and other times brushed aside.  This book does not address his many lifelong friendships with other artists in the area, including Bob Scriver.  They’ve been photoshopped out, which might be a good thing, because it leaves room for another book, probably not written by a formal historian.  Joyce Turvey’s daughters emphasized that she was adopted, NOT Indian, very much Californian which is where they grew up.  Joyce had a career as a makeup company executive and that’s what they value.  No Indians were present at Joyce’s funeral.  Her gallery did not represent Indian artists.

Graybill is not an expert on the contentious field of contemporary Western art or even the checkered practices of the Montana Historical Society nor is he particularly informed about the memes of the Blackfeet.  One of them, the practice of a powerful man making a daughter into a specially cherished child (minipoka), often recurs in this narrative.  The violent names of some of the women were a compliment to their father’s exploits.  But these considerations were not vital to the forming of this narrative, which is exceptionally pleasant to read, clear and graceful in its phrasing.
Malcolm Clarke

The crucial issue is not just the struggle of individuals to matter in the world, but the painful and sometimes deadly dynamics of two juggernaut cultures producing humans born into turbulence.  Described as “races,” they were often more similar than different -- warriors and wives on both sides, hard-pressed to find safe and peaceful places, believing that violence was the only way, often deeply damaged when alcohol became an alternative.  Sorting this all out is tough when Malcolm’s birth year (1817), isn’t quite two centuries ago yet.  I’m waiting for the Uphams, Kipps, Tatseys, and Weatherwaxes to get their books into print.  Woody Kipp is the only one so far.  Jimmy Welch’s father was raised on the Blackfeet Reservation, but Jimmy Welch, Jr. was not, except for summer visits.  His family line doesn’t go back far in Browning -- in fact, the father, who was mostly Cherokee on his father’s side, was Bob Scriver’s playmate.  (Both born in 1914 in Browning.)  The grandfather was from the Carolinas.

Emotions still swirl on the rez, still affect who goes to college and how they are received when they come back, what possible ways there are to survive after returning.  The roots of being Blackfeet are on this high east slope of the Rockies and their survival as a cultural people depends upon keeping the relationship to the land alive -- NOT blood quantum or descent.  

It’s self-serving for me to say so, but many white people have felt the mystical magnetism of this land and have quietly visited whenever they could.  Walter McClintock, for instance.  Me, for instance.  A small array of scholars, more and more include the Blackfeet themselves, the Cree and other strands mixed into them, and the assimilated outliers like Tom Dawson, who married Malcolm’s daughter, and whose family descendant was the “registrar” for the Charles M. Russell Museum in Great Falls.  Where’s THAT book?  

I hungered and thirsted for “The Red and the White” because there were so many questions.  But it’s like studying the cosmos:  the more questions are answered, the more the answers raise even more crucial questions.  I think this will not be the last post about this book, either by me or by others -- particularly the descendants, even the ones in California.


mscriver said...

Andrew Graybill says: "Lesley Wischmann (author of the joint biography of Culbertson and Natawista) is closing in on finishing a study of the Dawson family, which -- if I've got it right -- is due out in the next year from Arthur C. Clarke/University of Oklahoma Press." Excellent news!

Prairie Mary

Lesley Wischmann said...

Hey Prairie Mary - just wanted to drop a note to make sure you knew that the Dawson bio is out. This Far-off Wild Land: The Upper Missouri Letters of Sndrew dawson came out last spring from Arthur H. Clark, now an imprint of University of Oklahoma Press. Available directly from them or any of the on-line booksellers. It has already put us in touch with some of Dawson's Arikara descendants which was very cool.

Also wanted ro say that I really loved your musings on Greybill's book. I read it in draft manuscript and helped him get some of his details nailed down. He was unaware of the fascinating Clarke saga until fairly recently so he had the benefit of coming at all this with fairly fresh eyes which I think really benefited the work.

Anyway, keep up your good work. Your thoughtful insights are always a pleasure to read.

Lesley Wischmann