Saturday, March 11, 2017


When I landed in Browning, MT, in 1961 which pleased me very much, I had two notions.  One was that I wanted to live on an Indian reservation about which I had many fewer preconceptions than most people; and the other that I would “come of age” in a relationship with an artist/writer sort of person.  The two merged in my decade with Bob Scriver.  He was much older than one would expect but he was about the only action in town; that is, the only unattached and educated man who reciprocated.  

Almost immediately he developed herpes keratitis which nearly cost him his eye because there was no effective treatment; and he began a lifelong feud with the Federal Fish and Wildlife people because of a belligerent marshal who tried to close the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, thus eliminating his third income stream besides the art and taxidermy.  It looked as though at fifty years old, his life was ending.

The art was barely starting.  In fact, the whole concept of Western art was just developing.  There were no Western auctions.  The Society of Animal Artists had just formed, including Bob as a founding member because he had intended the Museum to be a resource for animal artists.  The contest for the statue of Charlie Russell had just ended badly but brought Bob the attention of Charlie Beil who lived in Banff.  Beil had been a protegée of Charlie Russell, so was one of the judges, and he took a liking to Bob’s misshapen but promising statue.  The Whitney Gallery of Western Art was just beginning its development into the present “Smithsonian of the West.”  Dick Flood was the precursor of wheeler/dealer Van Kirke Nelson and was supplying Russell works to the still-small museum in Great Falls.  There were no bronze foundries west of the Mississippi and ceramic shell casting had not been invented.

In that decade everything transformed.  I knew nothing about Western art or even Charlie Russell.  To me the center of the world for all the arts was Manhattan, a conviction I shared with the major glossy magazines.  The one gallery there that promoted Western art was the Kennedy Galleries.  (Chicago had the Mongerson and later the two were linked by marriage of the owners.)  In college, majoring in theatre, I had been taught to read the New York Times arts section — which was fat — thoroughly and critically.  In Great Falls was one news shop, “Val’s”, that carried the New York Times, out of sync but complete.  Every time I was down there, I bought it.  Naturally, now I read the gallery arts as well as the theatre section.  Bob had only thought “local,” but I was aggressively “national.”  We were told that there was only one sculptor doing work comparable to Bob’s — that was George Phippen.  We hadn’t heard of Harry Jackson.  The SW had not caught fire over art yet.

So I interpreted Bob’s work in terms of figurative bronzes in the style of Malvina Hoffman, whose Hall of Man I knew well.  This worked and despite his own scepticism, he was included in the National Academy of Design show, the National Sculpture Society show, and a few others.  Nothing sold, but the clippings persuaded uncertain buyers that they should pay attention, that he wasn’t just a whittler.

Pretty soon the Cowboy Hall of Fame was being built and the Cowboy Artists of America formed, and then the heroic-sized portrait of Bill Linderman was commissioned which led to the spectacular rodeo series.  The momentum of all this was swift and intense.  We were invaded by speculators and wannabes.  There was no time for sleep, much less relationship.

Bob’s reaction to the pressure was a series of dreams which were interpreted by John Hellson and Blackfeet elders as a call to become Bundle Keepers.  Blackfeet ceremonies include wives.  No young Blackfeet were involved except the little kids always present everywhere.  The ideas of intellectual property, indigenous entitlement, political claiming back of empire and so on were not developed yet.  We ourselves were detached from any of the drug-enhanced New Age access to magic.  Bob grew up with these Blackfeet, went to school with them, taught them, played in bands with them, hired them to work in the shop.

There was another stream, which was political.  T.E. Scriver had come from Quebec as an Indian trader in 1903.  Reservations are each unique with the presumptions of the times of their founding which dictated their organization and expected futures.  Blackfeet rez floundered a bit but finally gelled as a “corporation” with the enrolled persons as shareholders.  This was a finance-based system rather than a land-ownership base.  Though the Blackfeet were a gambling people, they did not understand that holding shares means gambling through bookkeeping.  They saw ledgers as paper for images.

The understanding of holding shares based on entitlement through genomic and registered family provenance is based on concepts that have dramatically shifted.  Many of the concepts, like “race”, are questioned today.  Healthy populations need genetic diversity and take in new members from outside the group (the “cousin” problem), so it would not be possible to look at the genomes of the registered members to see whether they were or were not Blackfeet, depending on which genes they inherited.  But it would be possible to prove descent from specific persons.  (Maybe a surprise.)

The Blackfeet were endowed with several sources of wealth, three notably coming from the industrial revolution:  Swift Dam, the Great Northern Railroad and the major oil patch which I haven’t heard named.  Tourism was an income fed by the railroad, which was made possible by Marias Pass.  The reservation did not understand the monetary potential of the pass.  Everyone understood oil.  Some knew the value of irrigation which depended on Swift Dam and was subtly diverted through canals to the south side of Birch Creek, as also was the land on that side.  Livestock was a strong source of income, dependent on grass and water, then alfalfa.  Small grains came a little later, another byproduct of the industrial revolution when chemicals and major machinery arrived.

Most of the writing about Blackfeet is either anthropological, often focusing on beautiful objects or the strategy of equestrian warfare, which arrived with the horse a few centuries ago; or romantic understandings of a people trapped in international passionate love/hate at a time when the terms of everything were shifting, this time trapped in passionate greed/justice.  Great terms for a novel, if the novel had not become antiquated, a preoccupation of the bourgeois Middle Class that the Blackfeet just now begin to aspire to in a time when it is dwindling, even in the small white prairie towns.

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