Wendy Red Star: It's 'not just Native history, it's U.S. history'
NORTH ADAMS — Do you know who Medicine Crow was?
Most likely not, but you may recognize Charles Milton Bell's 1880 portrait of him. It was once used as part of the label on Honest Tea's First Nation Peppermint tea and on the cover of a textbook.
It was this image that caused artist Wendy Red Star, an artist of Apsàalooke (Crow) and Irish descent, to question the appropriation of images of Native Americans to sell a product —a century-old practice of corporations.
"It made me wonder, the people who are using these images, do they know his name? Do they know that he's Crow? Do they know that he's from Montana?" Red Star, who grew up on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana and now lives in Portland, Ore., said in a March 2019 interview with the PBS series "State of the Arts." (In the case of Honest Tea, the image of Medicine Crow appeared on a tea produced in collaboration with I'tchik Herbs, a company co-owned by Theresa Sends Part Home, a Crow member, with part of the proceeds being donated to the Pretty Shields Foundation.)
"Then I started thinking wait a minute, I don't know what happened that day when he sat down to take that portrait. It was that one question that just led me on this incredible adventure of looking through archives, of going through history."
In her quest to learn more about the photo and the story behind it, she developed a series "Medicine Crow & the 1880 Crow Peace Delegation," which uses archival photographs of five of the six Crow chiefs who traveled to Washington D.C. for negotiations that would result in the sale of part of the Crow reservation in Montana to the Pacific Railroad.
In creating her work, Red Star researched the original archival images, most of which reside in the Library of Congress and National Archives and Records Administration without identifying information, learning much about the individuals and the significance of their regalia. She then annotated the images in red ink, adding facts about the regalia or historical information about the individual to draw attention to details the viewer most likely doesn't know.
"Hair extensions made from people in mourning," one annotation reads; a red arrow points to the section of hair on one chief's photo. On another, the portrait of "Dèaxitchish/Pretty Eagle," the annotation in red ink, written in first-person reads "My remains, along with sixty other tribal members, were stolen from their burial sites along Bighorn River, by Bighorn County Sanitarian Dr. W. A. Russell, 1903."
Many of the images from that series, including "Peelatchiwaaxpaàsh/ Medicine Crow (Raven)," are part of the recently opened exhibit, "Wendy Red Star: Apsàalooke: Children of the Large-Beaked Bird," in Kidspace at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
"Kidspace has really become this place where the most timely social justice issues are being addressed. The Kidspace motto is, 'It's not just for kids,' because these are conversations that we all should be having and the work that we do in the galleries try to make them as accessible as possible, working with the artist," said Laura Thompson, Kidspace curator and director of education at Mass MoCA, during a recent interview at the gallery.
The exhibit, she said, has become even more timely with recent current events — the removal of some Native American images as sports team mascots, a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that most of eastern Oklahoma belongs to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and discussions about Mount Rushmore and other monuments.
"The idea of monuments is really heightened right now, as well as [the question of ] who gets recognized in monuments? With Wendy's exhibition, we're thinking about whose history gets recorded; how accurate it is and what are the intentions behind the portraits from these delegations. It really was a form of control, when thinking about particularly these Crow delegations of 1873 and 1880 [that went to Washington D.C.]," she said.
"While they were there, the federal government decided to take portraits. What is the intention of these portraits when you're taking away their lands? This is a time when [the Crow] wasn't allowed to speak their language, when [the government] was forcing their children into boarding schools; forcing them to conform or assimilate to the dominant white culture."
Thompson said Red Star's work moves beyond the realm of art, comparing her practice to that of an archivist/museum educator.
"She's really using her art to bring us into the images with an intention to understand the personalities of these very important Crow leaders," Thompson said.
The portraits of the 1880 Crow Peace Delegation, along with portraits of the similar delegations to Washington D.C., in 1873 and 1900, are not the only images of Native Americans that have inspired her work. Included in the Kidspace exhibition is "Indian Summer — Four Seasons," part of a series of photographs in which she recreates dioramas of Native Americans found in natural history museums around the country.
Created in 2006, the series is Red Star's response to seeing other people view museum dioramas of the Apsàalooke (Crow) people during a trip to a natural history museum as a graduate student. There, as in most natural history museums, Native American artifacts and history are displayed alongside those of ancient cultures that no longer exist.
What she's trying to do is be provocative and make fun of the way Native people are presented in natural history museums.
"I think that's the opportunity we have here, is to point out things like that; so, when our families, our kids, our adults go to other cultural institutions, they are looking at things with a critical eye," Thompson said. "This exhibit couldn't be more timely. Museums are a microcosm of everything that is being called into question in larger society and it's playing out in museums when it comes to what they are collecting, interpreting and displaying."
At the center of Red Star's work is a social commentary, focused on bringing attention to the history and culture of Native Americans, especially that of the Apsàalooke tribe.
"What I've learned is that people don't know about Native people at all," she said, during the PBS interview. "They don't know the history, which isn't just Native history, it's U.S. history."
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