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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Baaaxuawaalaáche: Images of the past

Growing up on the Crow reservation we are afforded many wonderful things; a river to play in on hot July afternoons, horses to ride from sun rise to sunset, many mothers to feed us and speak Crow to us, and delightful oral accounts of our ancestor’s magnificent feats of bravery, magic, and love. These legends tell us of Apsáalooke medicine men using sacred bundles to manipulate the weather, warriors imbued with cosmic powers making them them impervious to bullets and women who were given songs by ancient beings to help her heal people from certain death.  These stories are different for each family, clan, or band. Each family has its own special legacy that is carried on from one generation to the next. In some families when a child is old enough to sit still and be attentive, they are allowed to handle extraordinary objects. Sometimes these items hold power, other times they are very old beautiful works of art, and occasionally they are timeworn historic photographs that give life to those magical oral accounts.  It is these distinct experiences that lay the foundation for our lives, and cement our identity as Apsáalooke people.

Nina Sanders, NMAI Intern, as a child with her grandmother, Margo. Photograph provided by Nina Sanders.
I lived with my great-grandmother and my grandmother on the Crow reservation in a time when it was normal to have a functioning VCR and meat drying from poles perched on top of kitchen cabinets. My great-grandmother Baautdeesh, or “Everything She Joins” Florence Real Bird was in her 80’s when I was about a 4th grader. I spend much of my childhood with her as her helper. I would thread her needles, play cards with her, grind meat for her pemmican and get her money stash out when one of her many grandchildren came to visit.  On one occasion, Baautdaa was going through one of her many trunks and pulled out a stack of photographs. She stopped what she had been doing, sat down and thoughtfully gazed into the faces in every photo. Her attention was so intense that I stopped what I was doing and sat next to her as she looked.  One particular photo caught my attention, it was different than the rest—a portrait with three very small children and two adults.  I didn’t ask who they were because it was very clear that the photograph made her emotional. Eventually she put the photos away, and I did not see them again until over a decade later.

"Everything She Joins" Florence Real Bird, great-grandmother to the author, viewing a photograph. Photograph provided by Nina Sanders.
It was one summer, sometime after Baautdaa went to other-side-camp, that I brought my two baby girls from my new home in Arizona to visit my Grandma Margo. On a particularly lazy afternoon I wandered into her bedroom, a space I once shared with her, and opened her photo drawer. I found stacks of photos with images of all our family members as well as several people I had never seen before.  I carefully sifted through each photo, looking for images of my favorite family members, placing each one on the bed until the drawer was nearly emptied.  There nestled in the corner was a manila envelope fastened shut with a cotton cord. I cautiously opened the envelope and inside I found the same black and white photographs I had seen my great-grandmother pour over a decade before. Among the stack was the precious photo of the three children that had captured my imagination all those years ago. My grandmother told me who the children were—her siblings, Martha Real Bird, Jim Real Bird and Lorraine Real Bird with their grandparents Annie & Frank Bethune. She allowed me to take the photo and several others to make copies for my own collection. I returned to my desert home in Phoenix with the duplicates in my possession, immediately put them in frames and placed them on a shelf to remind me of where I came from. In my years as a college student that particular photo moved from one place to another, always near, gently reminding me of my Apsáalooke foundation.

A few months after I graduated from Arizona State I applied for an internship at the National Museum of the American Indian in the Archive Center. I was accepted and departed for Washington D.C, this time without the photograph since I left it for my two teenage daughters to be reminded of their roots. Upon my arrival at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) I began my work in the archives with a very specific project to work with Apsáalooke photographs, particularly a collection of photographs made by William Wildschut, an employee of the NMAI’s predecessor institution, the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation.

Apsáalooke Chief Plenty Coups (Alaxchiiaahush) with William Wildschut. Plenty Coups is wearing his war bonnet (báashbaleikkupe), war shirt (baleiíttashtee) decorated with beads and ermine and beaded gauntlets (Crow floral), circa 1917-1928. [N31139] William Wildschut photograph collection. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.
In 1882 a congressional act by the United States government significantly reduced Crow lands and shortly after in 1884 all three bands of Crow were moved to present day “Crow Agency” and the surrounding area. During the relocation and settlement dozens of photographers, and ethnographers chronicled the events. William Wildschut was among these men, a European born family man who came to Hardin in 1917 as a farm mortgage manager.  He instantly became fascinated and consequently began his 10 year career as a collector, photographer and ethnographer of the Crow people.  He, like many other non-Indians of the time, focused on the “dying race” narrative. Wildschut believed he was chronicling the end of the Crow people.  Fortunately for the Crow annihilation did not ensue and today there are over 14,000 members, many of which continue to speak the language and participate in the traditional practices.

Part of my project in the NMAI archives was to prepare a guide to the William Wildschut photograph collection that could be made available online through the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive. Over the course of the summer I analyzed negatives, prints, and postcards, identified people, researched families, replaced many terms with Apsáalooke expressions, and provided descriptions that would allow the world to see the William Wildshut photographs through Apsáalooke eyes. As I worked though the Wildschut negatives I came across a very distinctive photograph. It was that same black and white photograph that my great-grandmother held in her hands over 20 years before, the same picture that I had later uncovered in my grandmothers dresser drawer.  Among the photographic negatives of the William Wildschut collection I found the very image that carried me through my young life as a mother, student and Apsáalooke woman.

Annie and Frank Bethune with grandchildren Martha Real Bird, Jim Real Bird and Lorraine Real Bird. Copy of  N32325 from the William Widschut photograph collection. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.
Everything came full circle in that moment. I understood how important many museum collections are, that they have the power to shape lives and influence identity in the same way that hearing your mother speak to you in your language can, or hearing a story about your people’s migration. A collection that is cared for properly and made accessible to Native communities can help us understand what we come from and that we are connected to our ancestors in a multitude of ways.  I saw Mr. Wildschut's work in a new way, I was less inclined to be angry with his collection methods and finally able to see how the things he preserved allowed me to touch my past, and be deeply moved by the sacrifices my ancestors made to stay alive and preserve parts of the culture. I also understood that my people were wise enough to understand that his work in some way would anchor them to me, to those of us who continue to call ourselves Biiluuke.

"Everything She Joins" Florence Real Bird (center front) with some of her children. To Florence's right is Lorraine Real Bird who is the baby in the cradle board in the above photograph. To Florence's left is the wife of James (Jim) Real Bird, the young boy in the above photograph. Photograph provided by Nina Sanders. 
My work in those archive stacks embodied the same intentions as my ancestors when they allowed Wildschut to photograph them and take their precious belongings.  What I created in that finding guide will hopefully one day help another Apsáalooke person understand who they are and that our people are continuously connected across time and space. Knowing that, I wept with humility and gratitude, I felt my ancestors all around me, and we healed together.  The incredible people that trained me and encouraged me in those archives were essential to the process, they continue to work hard for not just me and my tribe but for all the tribes represented in the collections. Rachel, Michael, Jeremy, Nathan and Emily were generous and open minded. They opened the Crow collection to the Apsáalooke people, accommodated our requests to make sacred content private, and left the door open for further collaboration.  I will live in perpetual gratitude to everyone involved in this project. I hope many good things come from it. Aho.

Nina Sanders, Summer Intern (2016)
National Museum of the American Indian, Archive Center

The finding aid to the William Wildschut photograph collection can now be found online on the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive (SOVA). Wildschut's correspondence and manuscript materials can be found in the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation records.

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