Tuesday, July 25, 2017


Crees travel by boat, part of Paul's collection

When I signed up for Twitter, I began to see tweets by Paul Seeseqasis, who had a project going about early photos of far northern FN/NA groups, as far north as the Inuit and as far south as Montana.  In a while I began to see Blackfeet people and places that I knew back in the Sixties and so I commented on them.  Then I worried that I might be displacing tribal people, and pulled way back.  But at that point people began to recognize relatives and to pick up the project of identifying everyone.  

That developed into a book contract for Paul, partly the photos and partly the stories of the photographers, who were usually white, and the people who were in the photos, who were deliberately indigenous -- that was the point.  The whole  thing is pretty organic and Paul is great about accepting information.

Lately, Paul has been working on Blackfeet, whose most prominent photographers were Walter McClintock and Thomas B. Magee, who gradually became two people, father and son.  The son was half-Blackfeet and grew up in a house where his father kept a darkroom.  As an adult, the son worked in the darkroom at the Museum of the Plains Indian and we gradually realized that many of the photos were taken on the sunny porch of the Museum.  There was Victor Pepion in his coveralls, playfully leaning on the wall, taking a break from painting the murals around the top of the entry hall.

Victor Pepion

I remembered that Adolf Hungry Wolf's magisterial four volume book set he called "The Blackfoot Papers" had information on photographers and writers dealing with the Blackfeet, the sources of the mammoth collection of photos and documents in the books.  Bingo!  Volume One contains at the back a whole section.  Since Paul didn't have access to the books, I took some notes to send him, and here they are.  (I mixed in a bit of my own memories.)


Adolf says there was a darkroom built inside the Museum of the Plains Indian for the use of staff and others.  The premise of the museum, when it opened in 1942 was that it would encourage and support what locals did.  It was Henry Lincoln Magee who worked in the dark room.  He also had a darkroom at home.  Thomas B. Magee died in 1936.  Henry died in 1965.

One big room, practically a wing, was meant to be tables for handwork with lockers to store them as well as supplies.  People sat at the same seats and kept small work in drawers under the tables.  It didn’t work, but it’s hard to figure out quite why.  It would seem like a pleasant way to be together, but maybe it got competitive.  Anyway, the darkroom right there explains why there are many photos on the front porch with that distinctive ironwork.

The people Adolf lists at the back of Volume One of this 4 volume set are mostly folks who were in Browning or on the rez just after the turn of the century.  They knew each other, sometimes were friendly and helped each other out.  I would include in that group Schultz, Grinnell, McClintock, Magee, Roland Reed and T.J. Hileman.  Maybe more.

Most of them were surviving in a “gig economy” way rather than being on salary or contract or attached in some way to an institution.  I’m weak on the history of photography but I get the impression that at this stage on the prairie it was sort of like playing the piano, a skill that could produce a little extra income but not a living.  Many of the old-timers were still speaking Blackfeet only, which hampered trading or contracting and required interlocutors.

A young woman at BCC once said to me bitterly, after seeing my father’s photos on my blog,  “No one in my family could afford a camera or film.  There are no records of us.”  I explained that my father’s job as a “field man” included sending photos with stories to the company newspaper, so it subsidized his camera costs.  But I wasn’t being quite honest.  He just took some of the cost of his photography out of the family’s living expenses.  Luckily, there was enough income that we were only pinched a little.

THOMAS B. MAGEE  (There is a senior and a junior who doesn't have the same name, which is confusing.  This is about the senior.)

Quoting AHW:

“As postmaster of Browning and husband of a Pikunni woman, Magee knew the people so well that he was generally welcome anywhere with his camera.  His resulting work is among the largest and most thorough, perhaps surpassed only by Walter McClintock.  A major difference between the two is that Magee specialized in portraits of individuals and groups, while McClintock looked for rituals, ceremonies and other activities.”

I expect that difference stems from the monetization of the photos.  McClintock was illustrating the tribe for books to sell to a white readership;  Magee was acting as a local photographer would today, recording families for their own use.

“Thomas Magee made a great variety of prints from his many photographs.  Many of these were ordinary postcards with his name embossed on the front, that he sold wherever he could, especially to tourists and tourist shops.  He also made some fine large sepia prints, mounted on cabinet boards.  Some of his photographs were published in magazines, others were bought by large photo producers like the Keystone View Company, which published his work as stereopticon cards, two duplicate prints per card.”

Bob Scriver had a collection of “cabinet photos” but I never saw them.  They were acquired after I had left.  I presume the Montana Historical Society has them, but I didn't see them there when I visited his estate.

Thomas B. Magee’s wife was Julia Howling or “Meen-aki.”  Berry Woman.  Her daughter was Mary who was the mother of Evelyn. wife of John Ground, Jr..  Julia and Thomas were married in 1890.  Julia had outlived her previous husband, Alec Red Head, who was the father of  Mary.  The two women were often models for Thomas.

Don Magee was “son of Henry Lincoln Magee, grandson of Thomas Benjamin Magee, the photographer.”  He tells us what he remembers.

In the Thirties there was a fire that burned Thomas’ home and destroyed thousands of prints and negs.  The  glass negs were melted.

At the end of the article is a photo that’s very funny.  It shows a man in a striped jacket seated directly on one of the wooden sidewalks, probably in front of the Sherburne Merc.  He has two dogs lying down alongide him, but the real feature is a row of chickens — I count 9 — roosting up her arms and on top of his hat!  It’s identified as Tom Magee but it looks to me like Tom Spotted Eagle, a far scruffier character than the dignified portrait of Tom Magee in his suit with his dressed-up sons.  The chicken man looks NA to me, but Tom Magee was not.  If you don’t have this photo, I’ll see if I can scan it and send it.

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