Saturday, December 01, 2018


I was told that this name was truncated from a phrase meaning "Man who is so powerful that when his tailfeather headdress is seen coming, people are afraid." The family has never said that I know of and I have no confirmation.

This is material downloaded from the  Lethbridge Historical Society.  I reprint it because I'm getting a little bit bugged that so much information is lost or has no context.  This is factual material, but I'll add opinion or framing and distinguish it by coloring it blue.  I'm in Montana, close enough to the Birch Creek official boundary of the Blackfeet Reservation that when one is about to drive down the rez side of the road from Cut Bank, it's easy to see the water towers of Valier.  Lethbridge is in Alberta, about 130 miles north of Valier.  It is the largest city in southern Alberta (87,572), fourth largest city in Alberta after Calgary (1.239 million)  Edmonton (932,550) and Red Deer (100, 415).

Gerald Tailfeathers (1925-1975)

Gerald Tailfeathers was a Kainai artist born on the Blood Reserve in 1925. (Both Kainai and Blood are subsets of the Blackfoot Confederacy that was split by the Canada/US boundary.)  He had extensive formal art training and would become one of the 1st First Nations in Canada to become a professional artist. His schooling began at Saint Mary’s Lake Summer Art School in Glacier National Park.  (In the Thirties, this school was run by Winold Reiss, a New York artist esp. interested in "dark" people and famous for striking portraits of the tribal people at the time. These life-sized works were used by the Great Northern Railway to establish an image.  As far as I know no one has written a history of this colorful and influential school.)

In 1941 he attended the Banff School of Fine Art and took classes under the tutelage of Charles Comfort (1900-94 --Canadian war artist), Walter J. Phillips (1884-1963 --woodcuts and watercolors) and H.G. Clyde (academic, Group of Seven). He followed up his education at Banff with training at the Provincial Institute of Art and Technology in Calgary to study commercial design. 

He also studied cast-bronze sculpture with George Phippin. (1915-1966 - one of the earliest and most respected of the Cowboy Artists) in his Arizona studio. (  Bob Scriver was very much influence by Phippin, who made a trip to Browning.  At the time there were few artists working this way. 

All these people were outstanding professionals but they were also white-centered and though they liked and supported tribal people, they had none of the modern view of them, with the possible exception of Reiss.  Some of this was influenced by the time of war.

Tailfeathers went to work at the Hudson’s Bay Company as a graphic artist. At the same time he worked a great deal in charcoals, pastels, watercolours, temperas, pen and ink, oils and more.  (No one mentions photography though contemporary artist Tailfeathers descendants are masters of it and since they live close to the Rockies, their images are often stunning.)

Much of his work was done to share images of the life of the Kainai in the 19th century. Initially his work had a more romantic or nostalgic feel to them. Tailfeathers knew and learned from many elders. By 1957 Gerald Tailfeathers found it important to ensure that his pictures represented historical accuracy. It was also in the 1950s and 1960s that his work started to attract a greater audience.  (This was the time when "cowboy and Indian" themes dominated television series, books and movies.  It was just before ethnic accuracy and control became important, and often picked up the anthropological theme of the "vanishing Indian", the idea that they were doomed by time that is strongly expressed in the heroic statue by Fraser, "The End of the Trail", now given a room at the Cowboy Hall of Fame -- whatever its current name is -- in Oklahoma City.  So far no dominant image of the New Indigenous People Rising has captured imaginations.)

In his career, Gerald Tailfeathers was commissioned by the Canada Pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal, the Canada Post and the Glenbow Museum for paintings.
He died unexpectedly in 1975. There were several posthumous exhibitions of his work.

Artistry was part of Gerald Tailfeather’s family. His uncle was Percy Plainswoman (1895-1961), who signed his artwork as Two Gun (his Blackfoot name), and who made it his work to capture portraits of many of the Kainai elders. Two Gun was a self-taught artist and was the first Kainai to make his living as an artist.

For a considerable part of his artistic life, Tailfeathers signed his artwork, Gerald T. Feathers.


I can't remember ever meeting Gerald Tailfeathers, though he came up in conversation in the Sixties when a sort of community of artists was spread out over the East Slope of the Rockies and was being discussed.  Elizabeth Lochrie (1890 -'81) was a student at the Reiss summer school and she came through occasionally since much of her work was portraits of Blackfeet.  

Bob Scriver (1914 - 1999) longed to attend the school, but his mother wouldn't allow it.  The school was just a few miles from the Scriver summer cabin, so he snuck down there as often as he could.  What remains from the school is the wooden "Indian" at the Big Hotel in East Glacier that was carved by Reiss' brother.  He was close to Claire Sheridan, an Englishwoman devoted to Ireland by marriage and close to the Tailfeathers family.  In those days people went back and forth across the boundary with considerable freedom.  St. Mary's valley families were often born at the hospital in Cardston or even attended school there.

This whole complex of iconoclastic artists was sometimes still governed by cultural assumptions, usually British, with the original People's submerged view of the world not quite realized.  The time and place call out for a novel but there would be many problems recognizing and reconciling the drive to assimilate, the stubbornness of land-based identity, and the tidal cross-currents of war and economy.  These are often "old people's" interests, and therefore not easy to monetize.  Maybe the stories would have to be fictionalized.

In the same time (Thirties) Charlie Beil (1894 1976)- was a well-known artist in Banff but somehow no one connects him with Tailfeathers.  Instead Beil related to Charlie Russell.  Maybe it was the money.  Beil and Scriver were closely connected, partly because both had home foundries and partly from time spent by both with the Carberry family in East Glacier.

This is a link to a previous post about a book by Claire Sheridan about her summer at the Reiss school.

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