Wendy Red Star imagines the past and future of the Apsáalooke

Wendy Red Star draws out stories in a portrait of Peelatchiwaaxpash / Medicine Crow (Raven). Photo Courtesy of the artist and Mass MoCA.
Image by Wendy Red Star

Wendy Red Star draws out stories in a portrait of Peelatchiwaaxpash / Medicine Crow (Raven). Photo Courtesy of the artist and Mass MoCA.

A man in his 30s is sitting in profile, lean and broad-shouldered, wearing his military insignia and the honors he has won. He is looking steadily ahead. It has been a long winter, and he is 2000 miles from home.

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.

He has come to the swamp of the capital 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.

His name is Peelatchiwaaxpáash, and he holds a central place in nationally recognized artist Wendy Red Star’s new exhibit at Mass MoCA, Apsáalooke: Children of the Large-Beaked Bird.

The Apsáalooke are the nation of the northern plains, the Crow, and they are her people, and his.

Peelatchiwaaxpáash came to Washington D.C. 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 here with photographs of friends who made the long trek with him, Déaxitchish 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 August, and not free to talk then for an interview, but she has annotated their photographs as part of her artwork.

From these ethnographic studies she draws out the strength of these men, their physical courage, their relationships with their wives, their foresight and humor. Their ornaments tell stories, like military medals, 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,” says Laura Thompson, curator of Kidspace at Mass MoCA, “… their affinities, roles and responsibilities.”

‘We wear such vibrant colors. It’s an element missing from the historic photographs.’

Red Star began planning the exhibit with her three years ago. Thompson 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 to hear voices singing, Apsáalooke songs that Peelatchiwaaxpáash might have heard or joined in.

Here and now, in vivid color, Red Star looks out across the room from a photograph 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 19th century photos.
“‘It’s a balance,’” Thompson recalled 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 appliqué and shimmer of beadwork, form a contrast to Peelatchiwaaxpáash 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. And Red Star is upsetting that balance of power.

“She is taking control of her own portrait. 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 the self-portrait reminds Thompson of acclaimed Los Angeles artist Genevieve Gaignard’s work, in the Kidspace exhibit that has just closed and in the virtual exhibit Gaignard has opened recently at MCLA’s 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 may choose to present her.

Nearby, Red Star has brought together some of her own childhood drawings. Here she appears at home, riding an appaloosa through pasture and corrals, with the mountains blue-grey on the horizon. She is telling her history and her people’s history through their eyes, Thompson said, and it is a perspective many children do not learn in school, or do not learn in any accurate way, and many of their parents may not have earned 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 too often rare to hear Native peoples telling their stories from their perspectives in classes or in books, in popular culture or in public conversations.

What she learned in school, more than a generation ago, focused on the Spanish in 1492, she said, and on the Pilgrims 130 years later, without questioning the consequences of the colonists’ arrival. Her texts assumed the nations living here accepted and worked with the Europeans.

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

The historic photographs here bring in many voices and also raise questions for her. Red Star has researched them in depth, Thompson said. Red Star finds historical photographs in collections, the National Archives, the Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian.

And she knows their families. Their grandchildren and great grandchildren keep and share their stories.
Peelatchiwaaxpáash’s grandson, Joseph Medicine Crow, has written several books about his home and his people, as the designated tribal historian of the Apsáalooke, and Thomson is reading them.

Evening light touches the high slopes of the Bighorn Mountains. Creative commons courtesy photo.
By Christian Collins

Evening light touches the high slopes of the Bighorn Mountains. Creative commons courtesy photo.

He writes with warm familiarity about the high peaks, 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 Apsáalooke’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, rare grasses.

Peelatchiwaaxpáash was fighting for this place.

He was born in 1848, his grandson writes in From the Heart of Crow Country.
The Apsáalooke lived here for generations, close on 200 years, 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. Peelatchiwaaxpáash 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 Apsáalooke were forced onto the land that is now the 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.
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 Peelatchiwaaxpáash was riding into battle, often skirmishes against the Lakota, the Shoshone and other neighboring peoples. A friend later recorded some of his greatest feats in a tapestry, and Joseph Medicine Crow kept it with honor. He recalled stories of moving silently 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. Peelatchiwaaxpáash 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 Apsáalooke more than 35 million acres of land (some 50,000 miles), Joseph Medicine Crow writes. In 1868, it was reduced to 8 million acres. By 1905 it would be 2.5 million. It was out of this need that Peelatchiwaaxpáash traveled to Washington in 1880. Now his people had to be made strong again, to keep hostile forces from annihilating them entirely.

‘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.’

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 these photographs, they sit formally in their military jackets, looking at a camera man they don’t know, facing a weight of legislative pressure.

“They were positioned in these portraits,” she 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.”

Peelatchiwaaxpáash was a diplomat, and in that long winter, he was also an artist. Thompson described him in Washington D.C. 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 to 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.”

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