Thursday, June 29, 2017


When my parents had died, I was the one who by default took ownership of the family photos.  They began with the first cameras, middle-class markers cheaper than pianos and family-centered in the same way: an instrument, a skill, shared appreciation.  Most people were rural, still farming for a living, and there were no cars or roads for recreation travel.

By time I began to blog, I could see that it was a way to create albums.  One was  which was sometimes joined later by people I didn’t know but who had also known the little community in the Twenties.  Another, Strachans on the Prairie, was translated into a book, self-published through  Instead of collecting photos of the people, I made a sequence of all the places they lived as they struggled to make a living in an unforgiving place by raising potatoes.  

There are no indigenous people in these photos because they had died or been gathered onto reservations.  The exception is that my father and his friend took a bicycle trip across Manitoba and passed a government school.  They took a photo and talked to some kids they met.  They knew nothing about the indigenous people and not much about the animals, even the moose they hunted, but they learned a great deal about plants, both native and domestic.

My uncle Seth in his "camp"

“It's October, 1921. Seth, the youngest, sets up a camp in the yard. He has a headdress of what are probably turkey feathers and a bow and arrow. His camp includes a framework for hanging pots over a campfire, which has attracted the attention of the camp cat. (A variant on the more traditional camp dog.) My father, who remembered these times as idyllic, made sure to get a small "teepee" for our own backyard later in Portland and took a photo of my brother at about the same age and in the same pose. Raising we kids was for him mostly a matter of recovering the past."

All born in Scotland but the littlest.
My grandfather standing in the back middle.

In the time since my greatgrandfather immigrated from Scotland with his grown children, my family has dispersed.  From a small genetic group as tightly connected and interdependent as a ship’s crew, we have become a diaspora spread across the continent, hardly anyone rural.  Many of us have never met and the grandchildren of my brother have no idea who those immigrants were or what they did.  I sent copies of the book to some of them, but it was not of much interest to them.  

So when Paul Seesequasis began posting early photos of northern indigenous people, it soon became one of the great pleasures of Twitter, partly because it was parallel and even woven into my life because my connection to the Blackfeet Piegan goes back far enough to overlap a little bit with his time frame which ends in 1970.  I’ve known a LOT of Indians, going back to teachers at Vernon Grade School in Portland, OR, one of which was Mildred Colbert who wrote “Kutkos, Chinook Tyee” about her own family.  When I went to buy a copy of the book, I found it online in Ireland!  She had no children.

Many of my father’s photos haven’t been posted because they are slides, which makes copying them a little more complicated because they are color.  I’ve just posted everything “as is”, maybe cropping a bit.   Once I bought my mother a book about the Jungian interpretation of photos, like the curious prevalence of photos of women, especially mothers, with bodies of water in the background that are behind their pelvises, the spring of life.  Or of how some unconscious alignment makes trees appear to grow out of the tops of people’s heads.  She thought it was very silly.  Maybe.

In terms of tribal people we don’t see many photos of households of people of the diaspora, the ones who responded to the war effort by moving to cities to work in airplane factories and shipyards.  As many enrolled Blackfeet people live off the rez as on.  I think they are publicly assimilated but privately at home the kitchens look pretty much like rez kitchens which looked like camp kitchens (stove instead of campfire) because what humans arrange around themselves is shaped by what they do.  People gathering around a table with a formica top to play cards, drink coffee, and joke would be familiar in many places worldwide.  They do it next door. 

In opposition to that, consider the tribal people as alluring escape.  Below is a PR release from the Russell Museum in Great Falls.  In the political years of AIM this way of looking at tribal life would have invited not just protest but also semi-terrorism.  They weren’t against the alluring escape idea, but they were very much of the belief that it was THEIRS, that white people were stealing it, that it was worth money.  Obviously, the money angle is relevant to the Museum promotion.  But AIM’s lesson has been lost, partly because those who are paying attention now feel there IS no alluring escape.  Maybe at the movies. 

“When Curator Emily Wilson first saw an image of Charlie Russell dressed in full Plains Indian attire, she knew instantly she wanted to learn more and had just scratched the surface of something very fundamental to his artistic process. 

“This Thursday, learn how Charlie was able to escape the modern world and create the old west of his imaginings as Ah-wa-cous, or Running Antelope. When immersed in his Indian identity, Charlie was able to anchor himself to the spiritual harmony between man and nature that nurtured his development as an artist, historian and conservationist.” 

Charlie had substitutes for a warm family life: his log cabin studio, his cabin on the West side of Glacier Park, his pals at the bar, and his favorite bordellos.  There are photos of dress-ups, but not in the bordellos.  None that are public anyway.  Our understanding of his life is that he was worthy of Jack Weaver’s statue in the Washington, DC, The National Statuary Hall Collection.  One can see Charlie standing in the background when senators are interviewed about the current political scandals.  It was crucial at the time it was emplaced that Weaver be seen as a Montanan, though he soon moved to Edmonton.  It is no longer relevant that he was gay.

Photos are a way of reflexively investigating and recording who we are, but— once made — there is no guarantee that anyone will see them.  We live in a time when we look at naked people enjoying alluring escape.  We also look at people who are naked because they have no clothes and almost no flesh in a killing environment.  There won’t be many great-grandchildren wondering what their ancestors were like.  But survivors can go to the Internet and what they see will change them.  

It used to be that photos could be hidden or destroyed — no more.  The family images of berry camp that Paul Seesequasis puts on the Internet are now immortal.  We are all harrowed by time, especially by the industrial shift away from rural life, which raked the indigenous and immigrant alike.  We can’t help longing for the alluring escape that lingers on the horizon for us all.  Sharing our memories and visions helps us appreciate where we are right now — that means each other, even strangers.

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