Art exhibit highlights Montana tribal culture

By Eric Newhouse
Great Falls, Montana (AP) March 2010

An impressive new exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts details the history and culture of the White Clay People, otherwise known as the A’aninin or the Gros Ventre, who live on Montana’s Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

“It breaks new ground,” wrote associate curator Joe Horse Capture in the exhibition catalog. “This is probably the first time a major art museum has held an exhibition devoted to a specific Native American tribe and curated by members of that same tribe. Tribal members also wrote the catalog.”

The catalog is dedicated to Horse Capture’s dad, George Horse Capture, who moved back to Great Falls from Washington, D.C., after retiring as senior curator of the National Museum of the American Indian. The elder Horse Capture also contributed a historical and cultural narrative to the catalog, as did tribal artist and teacher Sean Chandler.

“Our tribe has always been a small one, and we lived in Canada for hundreds of years, so compared to other, larger tribes we are little known,” he wrote. “But many of us have earned college degrees and with the help of our elders over the years have located and gathered information from the four corners of the earth to provide this glimpse of our history and aspects of our culture.

“It turns out we were quite the people,” he added. George Horse Capture notes that it was named after William W. Belknap, “President Grant’s secretary of war, who in 1876 was impeached by Congress for accepting bribes and resigned in disgrace to avoid trial.”

Before reservation days, tribal artwork had to be specialized for a nomadic people.

“For them to carve a statue out of stone and drag it from place to place so it could just sit on a pedestal was not possible or practical,” George Horse Capture wrote. “Their solution was to combine the need for art with the requirements of daily life.”

For example, tepees routinely were painted with objects that had appeared in visions or with pictographic accounts of the warriors who owned them.

One extraordinary example is a tepee liner, 8 feet high and 17 feet long, that’s on loan from the Museum of Natural History in New York. It tells the exploits of two Indians.

One of them, Running Fisher, was born in southwestern Montana and performed feats of bravery on the field of war that have been preserved in oral history and in paintings.

The muslin tepee liner shows Running Fisher single-handedly firing a rifle at two Piegan braves in a coulee with three arrows headed toward him. Another scene shows him counting coup on an enemy with a gun rod.

“The highest form of honor was not to kill enemies, but to touch them while they were defending themselves,” explained Joe Horse Capture. “This was called ‘counting coup.’ It was done with a special object, such as the butt of a gun or a riding quirt or with the hand.”

Joe Horse Capture wrote that the scenes on the muslin tepee liner corresponded with a paper recently found in Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum, explaining who the warriors were and what they were doing.

“(Collector Clark) Wissler had provided a key to this pictograph,” wrote Joe Horse Capture. “Now with the muslin and its interpretation reunited, the scenes can be deciphered and thoroughly analyzed for the first time.”

The exhibition also includes a rare hide war shield made more than a century ago that had belonged to Bull Lodge, a warrior and holy man.

“The shield’s design was given to Bull Lodge during a sacred vision, and its spiritual power protected him in battle,” according to the catalog.

Also on display is a beautiful A’aninin shirt made from an animal hide and decorated with strips of beadwork down the chest and back and along the arms. Long strips of animal hide hang below the arms and floated in the wind as the warrior galloped his horse.

There are no war bonnets on display, but George Horse Capture wrote that he found it hard to believe the popular myth that each feather in a war bonnet signified one individual act of bravery in battle.

“There are no half warbonnets,” he noted. “Warbonnets come fully made.”

Joe Horse Capture wrote that many of the items in the exhibition were donated by Richard Pohrt Sr. objects, some of which entered museums, including the Plains Indian Museum and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

“Later in life, Pohrt gave objects that were sacred to the A’aninin back to the tribe,” he added. “He had considered himself as a caretaker of these powerful objects and felt compelled to return them. Such a close and personal relationship with a tribe is rare among collectors.”

 

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