Friday, September 22, 2017


Along with many others, I’m sure, I’m watching the Vietnam War history on PBS, the one made by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.  I’m putting off reading the discussion until after I’ve seen the whole series.  I notice that there is suddenly a LOT of Vietnam comment and history which is interesting — it must mean something besides just cashing in on the publicity that always praises Burns and Novick.  Maybe it is our current political struggle with a renewed Cold War, now internet enabled.

I often say I missed the Sixties because instead I lived the 19th century over again in Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation where we were still digesting what had happened a century earlier.  Starvation, confinement, massacre, the Other as enemy, economic corruption, land theft.  It wasn’t that much different, but it was distant in time (not very) rather than place, and the Native Americans had not won.  (Yet.)  It was confusing and there were not many theories or permissions for analysis, because oil corporations were still picking up where the railroad industrialization had left off.  We still had a manufacturing park with a sawmill and a pencil factory.

In the Sixties kids either learned or left.  Just the first beginnings of new ways of looking at it were appearing.  The Catholics had started a parochial school, the Methodists had begun a version of Head Start, and by the Seventies Bill Haw had organized a “free school.”  By then Vietnam had triggered a major culture sea change.  JFK began the building of housing projects that continues today.  LBJ’s opposition to race stigma has faltered but not died.  

In the Sixties we had no television from the American side — we watched Lethbridge broadcasts so a lot of what we saw was hockey or Diefenbacher, and most of it was pretty snowy.  (No cable, no satellite, no video.)  When we saw race riots, they were not censored and they were incredibly vicious  But there was so much family and town turmoil to deal with that by the time we landed on the moon in 1969, only a few adults watched or believed it.  Our grandkids sat in the backyard and sang camp songs to keep their sanity amid warring adults, a dying mother, and an asymmetrical marriage.

Because Bob Scriver grew up there (he was the same age as George Kicking Woman) in a tiny minority of whites, and wanted to be an “Indian,” like his best friend who was the father of James Welch Jr., his grasp of prejudice was weak.  Because he was the City Magistrate, a Justice of the Peace, and the backup coroner, his distinction was pretty much drawn among the law abiding citizens, the dangerous criminals, the harmless drunks (we hired them when they were sober) and the corrupt whites.  His worst hatreds were aimed at the “big fat cigar-smoking officials in the back room who control everything” and the hypocrites who threw him out of the Masons for being divorced.

If that sounds like material for episodes of “Gunsmoke,” that was pretty much the world we lived in.  The 19th century West was our subject matter and the 19th century Roman Block bronze casting technique, a high-prestige version of lost wax casting, was our method.  The style was that of 19th century Paris, which was imported to the US for monumental statues.  As a child, Bob had absorbed the realistic but dramatic approach by studying the newspapers after WWI, often featuring big bronzes as the ultimate honor.  He and the tribal council at the time began a series meant to create a kind of parade route of Blackfeet heroic bronzes:  “No More Buffalo,” “Transition,” “Return of the Blackfeet Raiders,” were small versions of what was intended.  It never happened.

But the whole country had an abiding hunger for something grand and honorable.  When Phimister Proctor was commissioned to make portraits of American Indians on horseback (at least one was posed for by Eddie Big Beaver from Browning), it was said that the American Indian represented the true American.  In our usual contradictory way, we make saints of those we simultaneously shun and destroy.  
by Phimister Proctor

But then we go back to destruction, pulling down the monuments (anyway, they were cheap, poorly made, oversold) and debunking heroes.  There are no Native American people in this Vietnam series as far as I’ve watched.  Not even code-talkers.  Some of the veterans’ stories about that combat said it was a mistake to be NA because it was assumed they were out of Leatherstocking tales and had unnatural powers to track and sense danger, so they were made to walk at the head of the column, even though they were the ghetto-raised kids of people who had migrated to LA to build war materials in WWII.  It took a lot of movies to overcome the Fifties television series stereotypes.  Probably still hasn’t happened entirely.

When I was teaching in Heart Butte in 1990 and videos were just available, I showed every movie I could find about NA’s.  One of them was “Soldier Blue” which was meant to be an indignant comment on Vietnam — it was produced by Jane Fonda— and some of it was shot-for-shot from the evening news.  The kids just thought it was disgusting.  They had never seen the news.  They clung to the 19th century versions in the movies they knew, even though the “Indians” were often the losers. 

In the Sixties Ramon Gonyea was the first indigenous curator of the Museum of the Plains Indian.  For an art show he painted an NA version of a screaming person in Picasso’s “Guernica.”  No one recognized it, much less shared the sentiment.  He went on to a career as an artist and curator of American indigenous culture at The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, one of the many monumental museums that mark the conflation of cowboys and Indians, partly as a justification of Vietnam and partly as an attempt to dignify the enormous fortunes made from natural resources.  The CMRussell museum in Great Falls is a secondary version.

Business was good for Bob Scriver and the Cowboy Artists of America, but no one admitted directly that this mix of exploitation/indigenous peoples/frontier/empire wealth  was what was powering the sentiment.  And still is.  Check out the “lifestyle” magazines of baroque art leather/silver/turquoise/
sex material culture of the wealthy in the American SW.  They’re on every grocery store magazine rack.

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