hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture August 2020


Through photos, artist sheds light on her people

Exhibit at Mass MoCA tells story of Montana’s Apsaalooke nation



A large cutout drawn from a historical photo is part of Wendy Red Star’s new exhibit, “Apsaalooke: Children of the Large-Beaked Bird,” in the Kidspace at Mass MoCA. Courtesy Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art


Contributing writer


He is sitting in profile, wearing his military insignia and the honors he has won, and looking steadily ahead.

It has been a long winter, and he is 2,000 miles from home. He has come to Washington, D.C., from southern Montana. In his land, the sheer peaks are touched with snow, and they rise in limestone chasms from the grasslands and the intense blue of the Bighorn River.

He is a commander and a visionary. He became a scout and a soldier on horseback at 15, a leader among his people at 22, an ambassador and an artist at 32.

The day this photograph is taken, he is in the Capitol, fighting to keep his people alive.
His name is Peelatchiwaaxpaash, and he holds a central place in nationally recognized artist Wendy Red Star’s new exhibit at Mass MoCA, “Apsaalooke: Children of the Large-Beaked Bird.”
The Apsaalooke are a nation of the Northern Plains, the Crow, and they are her people, and his. Peelatchiwaaxpaash came to Washington in 1880 with a delegation to negotiate for their land and rights. His name translates as Medicine Crow, or Sacred Raven, and Red Star brings him to Mass MoCA with photographs of friends who made the long trek with him -- Deaxitchish and Alazchiiaahush, co-leaders of the nation, and Peelatchixaaliash, who says, in Red Star’s words, “I always do what I set out to do.”

Red Star was with her family in Montana in late July and wasn’t available for an interview. But she has annotated the photographs in the show.

From her ethnographic studies she draws out the strength of these men, their physical courage, their relationships with their wives, their foresight and humor. Their ornaments, like military medals, tell stories, and she expands their meaning: “I was the first to touch the enemy. … I have fought hand-to-hand. … I have visions of the future.”

“She wants to show them as they were – their affinities, roles and responsibilities,” explained Laura Thompson, curator of Kidspace at Mass MoCA.

Among photos, a stark contrast
Thompson said she began working with Red Star three years ago to plan the exhibit. She saw Red Star’s work at the Newark Museum and knew immediately she wanted to work with her. She remembers walking into that room in New Jersey -- and hearing voices singing Apsaalooke songs that Peelatchiwaaxpaash might have heard or joined in.

Here, in vivid color, Red Star looks out across the room from a photograph -- “Apsaalooke Feminist #2” -- as large as a mural. She and her daughter are sitting side by side. Each cups her chin in her hands, looking out with a level gaze. They are wearing elk-tooth dresses, deep blue skirts with long fringes and red flowers opening wide petals.

“They are passing along traditions from one generation to another,” Thompson said.
Red Star has told her the color is vital here, in contrast to the black-and-white images.
“‘It’s a balance,’” Thompson said, recalling her words. “‘We wear such vibrant colors. It’s an element missing from the historic photographs.’”

The vivid hues and the beauty in the fabrics, the applique and shimmer of beadwork, form a contrast to Peelatchiwaaxpaash and his fellow leaders, who sat for the cameras of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The government took these photos as a tactic to intimidate, Thompson said. In the same way, they would keep delegates in the city for months, away from home, dragging through cold days, often unwell.

“They were required to sit,” she said.

Now, Red Star is upsetting that balance of power.
“She is taking control of her own portrait,” Thompson explained. “She is taking back that authority.”

Looking at Red Star and her daughter, at their shared gestures and direct expressions, Thompson sees an assertion of confidence, as Red Star chooses how to set the scene and how to act. And she feels a sense of solidarity as they sit shoulder to shoulder, a celebration of the art and beauty they keep together, and an ironic awareness as Red Star sets the work at the center of this show.

In that awareness, Thompson said, the self-portrait reminds her of acclaimed Los Angeles artist Genevieve Gaignard’s work in the Kidspace exhibit that has just closed and in the virtual exhibit Gaignard will open this month at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts’ Gallery 51. Gaignard will often take a recognizable kind of image and put herself into it as a challenge to that kind of image.

Red Star questions the ways photographs and museums have presented her people for generations, Thompson said, and the ways they might choose to present her.


Adding context to history
Around the corner, Red Star has brought together some of her own childhood drawings. Here she appears at home, riding an appaloosa through pastureland and corrals, with the mountains blue-gray on the horizon.

She is telling her history and her people’s history through their eyes, Thompson said. It is a perspective many children do not learn in school, or do not learn in any accurate way, and that many of their parents have not learned or talked about.

This show gives a space to think about how U.S. history is told, she said, and who tells it, and from what point of view. It is still rare to hear Native peoples telling their stories from their perspectives, whether in classes, books, popular culture or in public conversations.

Thompson said what she learned about history in school, more than a generation ago, focused on the Spanish in 1492, and on the Pilgrims 130 years later, without questioning the consequences of European colonialism. Her textbooks assumed the people who were already living here accepted and worked with the European newcomers.

“I think the tone is different now,” she said, though she added that many perspectives still get left out and need to be heard.

The historical photographs included in this show bring in many voices and also raise questions. Red Star has researched them in depth, Thompson said, and has found photographs in collections including the National Archives and the Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian.

And she knows the families of people depicted in these old photos. Their grandchildren and great grandchildren keep and share their stories.

Peelatchiwaaxpaash’s grandson, Joseph Medicine Crow, has written several books about his home and his people, as the designated tribal historian of the Apsaalooke, and Thompson is reading them. He writes with warm familiarity about the high peaks of the Bighorn Mountains and the valley of the Yellowstone River.

The mountains climb to 9,000 feet from the valley of the Little Bighorn River in fissured ridges, explains the Apsaalooke’s Little Bighorn College. In the south, Cloud Peak rises 13,167 feet high. In the north, glaciers have left a high prairie, meadows of sage and wildflowers, soft aster, mountain lady’s slipper, marsh muhly, and rare grasses.

Peelatchiwaaxpaash was fighting for this place. He was born in 1848, his grandson writes in “From the Heart of Crow Country.” The Apsaalooke lived for generations, nearly 200 years, in what became southern Montana, and in his lifetime their way of life was changing under intense pressure.

In the 1840s, a massive smallpox epidemic reduced a community of 8,000 people to about a thousand. Peelatchiwaaxpaash was born in the hard years just afterward.

He would have seen the Europeans moving inexorably west. Trappers and trading posts came, Medicine Crow says, then military outposts. The Bozeman Trail cut through to the gold mines in western Montana. The U.S. Army was moving in force against the nations of the Plains.
In the 1860s, the Apsaalooke were forced onto the land that is now their reservation. By the 1870s, the transcontinental railway was projected to slash through their fields.

It was a time of deep upheaval for a people who moved in a seasonal rhythm and raced with the bison herds.


Passing tests of courage
Joseph Medicine Crow describes his grandfather as a boy learning to swim and wrestle and ride, as he himself learned to withstand cold when he was young by running barefoot in the snow, farther each day. He describes his grandfather climbing rock pinnacles in the wind and fasting, seeking visions.

At 15, Peelatchiwaaxpaash was riding into battle, often in skirmishes against the Lakota, the Shoshone and other neighboring peoples. A friend later recorded some of his greatest feats in a wall hanging, and Joseph Medicine Crow kept it with honor. He recalled stories of his grandfather moving stealthily into camp to slip a horse’s lead rope when it was tied to a sleeping man’s wrist.
“[A man] fought not so much to damage his enemy,” he says, “as to distinguish himself.”
In her annotations and stories, Red Star describes a culture of proving courage. A man had to perform four tests to become a chief, a war leader: He had to touch the first fallen enemy, alive or dead; he had to wrestle a weapon from an enemy; he had to enter a camp at night and take a horse; and then he had to command an action successfully, to bring his men back alive and victorious.

Peelatchiwaaxpaash was a chief by the time he turned 22.
But he had seen his people’s land consistently, dramatically taken away.
“This nation was founded on controlling and eliminating the nations who lived here,” Thompson said.

In 1851, through the Fort Laramie treaty, the U.S. government had secured to the Apsaalooke more than 35 million acres of land, Joseph Medicine Crow writes. In 1868, it was reduced to 8 million acres. By 1905, it would be 2.5 million.

It was against this backdrop that Peelatchiwaaxpaash traveled to Washington in 1880. Now his people had to be made strong again, to keep hostile forces from annihilating them entirely.
Respected men, chiefs of the nation, came to negotiate with the U.S. government.

“They were leaders coming forward to protect their people,” Thompson said. “It was difficult to negotiate with a government that was lying to them or manipulating them.”

In the exhibit’s photographs, they sit formally in their military jackets, looking at a cameraman they don’t know, facing a weight of legislative pressure.

“They were positioned in these portraits,” Thompson said, “taken from different angles to objectify and control them, even though the U.S. was taking their land and forcing their children into boarding schools, requiring them not to speak their languages.”

Peelatchiwaaxpaash was a diplomat, and in that long winter, he was also an artist. Thompson described him in Washington -- in the raw and grimy city. He would look for animals wherever he could find them, she said. He came to them in captivity, in circuses, in zoos, and he drew them in his journal, maybe the flick of a horse’s ear, a dark and liquid eye.

He survived the winter, and the journey home, and Red Star shows him looking keenly ahead, working to help his people live on into a difficult future.

He lived until 1920, and he might have been there on the October morning in 1913 when his grandson was born. There were no doctors or nurses, Joseph Medicine Crow writes, but a healing woman who delivered him.

“With incense of burning cedar and the singing of sacred songs, I came into the world. I was singing too, but they probably thought I was wailing.”