Monday, October 10, 2016


McClintock must have used a self-timer for this.
My mother's people are Pinkertons, but no relation to Charlotte that I know of.

For some time I’ve made it a practice to respond to each posted photograph put up on Twitter by Paul Seesequasis.  The McClintock archive is one I know from two points of view: “The Old North Trail” was one of the first books I read when I came to Browning to teach in 1961.  I actually recognize some of these people and many of the places.  My father-in-law, T. E. Scriver, knew McClintock because he traded at the Browning Mercantile, the family business.  In 1989-91 I taught in Heart Butte and for all classes I insisted that we read “The Old North Trail.”  I had a box of copies, numbered, enough for a class, and no one left until all the copies were accounted for.  The irony was that as soon as I started pushing the book, people looked in bottom drawers and old trunks to pull out their own copies.  More people read and used the material in this book than those who read John Ewers’ official anthropology book.  I think it was because of the photos.

There are other archives of Blackfeet scenes and we used Roland Reed’s posed photos to accompany exhibits of Bob’s sculpture.  I don’t know whether the Fort Benton gallery uses the photos, but they do have the Blackfeet bronzes.  On television the photos blown up to be wall murals in the fancy office of the villain in “Longmire” are Roland Reed’s work.  Generic Plains Indian.  The irony is that they were posed early in the 20th century so by now that counts as history: they are not authentically buffalo people, but they are authentic imitations of buffalo people, early descendants.

The images from farther north, Inuit landscapes, are places I don’t know but they have such strong painterly qualities — partly because of being on the “clean sheet of paper” that is snow country.  I hadn’t expected so many scenes on small boats and in coastal villages where the sailor’s instruments of accordion and fiddle enliven quiet times.

And then there’s the dimension of wondering about the photographer, who were these bold people who packed the big fragile cameras of the time and their practically architectural tripods along with the mini-lab necessary to develop the pictures and the special boxes for carrying glass negatives.  Some of the photographers were female, with a knack for catching breathless moments of kid-play or the relaxed enjoyment of a sunny day warm enough to hold a baby on one’s lap out on the front stoop, soaking up the warmth and vitamins.

Some of the photographers were themselves people of the community.  Tom Magee was enrolled Blackfoot — the singular meaning he was on the Canadian side of the Medicine Line.  “Treaty 7” people use the singular English translation of Siksika.  Some of the smartest and funniest kids I ever taught were Magees, on this Blackfeet (plural) side of the line.  Merle Magee was on the school board that originally hired me.  Deborah Magee is a well-known and respected artist who works directly with beads and quills, using traditional methods.

The photos let us look directly at the material culture of the real people, whether they are wearing tartan plaid skirts with their parkas or sitting at kitchen tables with their plastic ashtrays and packs of playing cards.  I love the bobby sox generation when the girls have a whirl of pincurls around their ears and cardigans over their elegant frothy blouses, the generation when girls became stenographers in offices.  By that time the men were wearing those flat tweed English caps and silk scarves around their necks.  Radios and phonograph players appear on shelves and it’s clear that these are skilled dancers.

But they still remember how to do the hair-raising blanket-toss and iceberg-jump feats that mean total commitment to possibilities and a willingness to dare death, something that takes hold in a place where people live up against fate.  Perhaps it is part of the teen suicide waves today.  When people are oppressed by idleness, traumatized by meaninglessness, death beckons.  But there are no photos here of corpses in the way that modern photographers seem to crave them as “news.”

Photos of lodges are interesting, but originally they are often meant to be sacred structures with flags at the tips of the poles.  We would need interpretation for that.  (Darrell Kipp used to lecture us about not saying “tipis” because it is a foolish, undignified word, but I don’t know where he got that idea.)  The old photos with wagons, even if there are white man’s wall tents, are the ones I like.  In fifty years I’ve seen the “skins” age, be replaced with new versions of the same patterns, or give way to blank white canvas.  The idea of “owning” the right to a specific pattern has thinned out. I recognize the lodges of the Kicking Woman family and old Whitecalf, the buffalo leaping over the door.  But I don’t know who stays in them now.  Aficionados who think they have key facts will speak knowingly of a pole-base of 3, a tripod, versus a basic four poles, a quadrupod.  Shrug. 

What really counts is the people and the strongest component of these archives Paul posts — no matter how striking the landscape or intriguing the gear — is always the people.  The old faces, folded and grooved, their good cheer revealing smiles with gaps, alternate with young faces empearled with bright smiles from ear to ear.  Solemn, confident old men at ease and then the handsome ones — oh, my — not quite arrogant because they know they will be tested.

I asked Paul whether I were horning in on his territory by making comments, since I’m white and not at all educated about photography though I’m the curator of my family’s archive.  (See “Strachans on the Prairie” — self-published booklet of all the places the Sam Strachans lived after they came to the Dakota prairie to homestead, then relocated to Swan River, Manitoba, and finally ended in Portland, OR.)  Paul generously assures me that I’m welcome and once in a while even know something that contributes.

Still, I wish that indigenous people could feel more free to drop their strategic covertness (a source of safety even now).  Usually it’s the sensory world that can’t be photographed — fresh fry bread, summer meadow, snapping evening fire in front of a tent and the smoke that mischievously follows you.  That world remains no matter what language you speak, what clothing you wear, and even what you might consider to be the meaning of life.  Maybe it IS the meaning of life.

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