It was fifty or sixty years ago that she’d swung down off the train in East Glacier with the other tourists, carrying her paint box because she didn’t want to let it out of her sight. She had a bit of money, enough to live for the summer in this vast east slope place which she only barely realized was a reservation, and she had assumed she would paint landscapes, the mountains — so glorious. But then she had met the anthropologist, much older than she was, confident and knowledgeable. When he discovered that she could draw, he asked her to come along while he interviewed Blackfeet, usually elders. They charged money for photos and took poses in front of a camera, because they thought that’s what was wanted. He paid them to talk, not pose, but wanted a visual record as well. One more natural and unguarded.
In the end she hardly painted anything that summer but filled tablet after tablet with sketches of faces and figures: dark, complex, expressive. Indians were supposedly stoic, but these old Blackfeet were full of emotion and as soon as they got used to her they paid no attention to her. At least the men paid no attention. The women paid close attention and kept the babies from crawling on her while she drew. They kept up a steady chatter in Blackfeet among themselves, with occasional directives to the men, who ignored them.
“Tell me about the way horses were managed,” the anthropologist would ask. The old men didn’t always agree and if more than one was present, they would interrupt to argue, which the anthro coped with by simply putting down both accounts and noting who said what. Clearly he knew he wasn’t getting some kind of revealed knowledge, an ultimate truth.
A small storefront had been rented for the summer, so the light flooded through what was normally a display window, at least on the bright days, but the overcast days were also good with evenly subtle light that revealed detail instead of drowning it in light or shadow. There was a big work table and some straight chairs. The anthro slept on a daybed behind a screen at one corner and hung his clothes on pegs on the wall. On a little wood stove he cooked his meals and made tea through the day.
Clare remembered this always as one of the best times of her life, partly because of the sensory experience — wood smoke, the smell of sweetgrass which the anthro invited the old men to smudge on the stove, and the smell of the people themselves, rich and funky, at the same time exotic and familiar. She often caught a whiff of Ben Gay or Vicks. Then sometimes pine pitch or earth. The slightly hooded eyes, the thin gray braids, the men’s bits of innocent decoration (shell earrings, a woman’s brooch, a rosette of ribbons, bright neck scarves), the restlessly competent hands that needed to do something all the time, copper bracelets to ward off rheumatism, and sometimes a little gathered-up bag of something mysterious hung around a neck. They wore “citizen’s dress,” meaning not buckskins but mostly second-hand suits, mismatched.
“Them old timers loved to throw a cougar-skin over their saddles. Best ones had a red border on. That was really showin’ off.”
“What kind of saddle was that?”
“Oh, we made good saddles our own way. Sometimes a prairie chicken saddle, not with high front and back like a woman’s saddle, but with a frame. Not just a pad.”
“Did you ever use a regular white man’s saddle?”
“When I was a boy, not many of ‘em around. But you needed ‘em for cows. For ropin’, you know.”
They say that people always want newly met cultures to stay the way they were at first contact and this was true for her. All the rest of her life she thought of “Indians” as necessarily being like these old men and their families — even though she knew logically that even after they’d begun to go to grad school and come back to the rez as M.D.’s and Ph.D’s, they were still just as Indian. Late in life, listening to them, she wondered what Blackfeet had been like before any white contact, maybe even before horses — nearly impossible to imagine. Dog days. A hard time, but they thrived until they met the white man’s germs, long before they met any white men. The horse, the gun, and the germ. Deceptive advantages followed by disaster and deep changes in the ways of the People.
When she had grown old herself, she reflected about this all the time. Some argued that if one traced the history of the Blackfeet back far enough that they weren’t Blackfeet anymore, but what was that supposed to mean? That they weren’t like the First Contact people? That they weren’t like the horse-and-gun warriors that everyone admired so much in the movies, which was most peoples’ first contact? Would they have been genetically different? Surely the land was the same clear back to the time of the glaciers and mammoths — but if an asteroid killed all the woolly mammoths, what did it do to the people? The anthro had said that people came to North American from Asia in three waves: was one of them necessary to repopulate the prairies after the Clovis people disappeared?
That first anthro in her life — she continued with him as his wife until his death, trying to help him save what he said was a vanishing people. But to her it seemed that they had not vanished, while he had. Everything was changed over time: identity individual or communal.
She knew the evidence of Indian origin was genetic and sometimes it seemed to her that the Blackfeet were almost some kind of northern Chinese, in some deep patterning of temperament and ritual that people took for granted. But what exactly? Respect for elders and love of formality? A kind of Taoist understanding and fatalism? She had seen photos of people around Lake Baikal who looked very much like Blackfeet.
What did it mean to be defined as “Blackfeet?” Where was the center and where was the edge? Was “tribe” just a made up concept? A cookie cutter coming down on a continuous sheet of prairie people? She knew she was not the only one to wonder about these matters. When she got to know the young folks, esp. in the Sixties and Seventies, they wondered a lot — but then they took the militant stand that THEY were the definition. By then the old people she had sketched so many times — their worn faces and hands — were gone. The young folks, whose hands were idle and who stayed indoors most of the time, didn’t look the same. Their hands and faces were smooth and pale. It bothered them sometimes. They seemed to swell up.
And the anthro’s work, which they both had thought was eternal and would guarantee his importance down through all the ages to come, did it mean anything? Or had the theories and the discipline of anthropology itself changed so much that the work they had done that summer was essentially meaningless, transient? Just a personal experience that was mildly interesting, no more.