This work by Wendy Red Star, entitled 1880 Crow Peace Delegation, consists of 10 historic photographs that have been scanned and digitally manipulated. The original portraits were taken by Charles Milton Bell, a studio photographer working in Washington, D.C. in the late 1800s. The delegation of Crow chiefs and distinguished leaders had traveled to Washington to discuss a treaty regarding the boundaries of the Crow Indian Reservation, and had their portraits made in Bell’s studio while there. Red Star, who is herself Crow, observed that the portraits, as with many historic photographs of Native American people, had made their way into the public domain with no identifying information about the sitters, and were appropriated for use in commercial advertisements. She discovered a photograph of one member of the delegation—Chief Medicine Crow—used in an advertisement for Honest Tea. This appropriation has taken place for over a century, with Native American faces and bodies used to sell everything from tobacco to cologne.
In Red Star’s series, she has annotated the scanned photographs, identifying the names of the sitters and details about their lives. She researched each individual and provides commentary on their status, accomplishments, relationships, and particularly the symbolic significance of their regalia. In the portrait of Peelatchiwaaxpáash/ Medicine Crow (Raven), she labels “Hair extensions made from people in mourning,” and “Ermine on leggings, successful war leader.” In some instances, her annotations give the sitters a first-person voice, such as Alaxchiiaahush/Many War Achievements/Plenty Coups who states, “I was baptized Catholic as Henry Plenty Coups in 1929” and Déaxitchish/Pretty Eagle, who says, “My body sold to a collector for $500 and kept for 72 years at the American Museum of Natural History. My people brought my remains back to Crow Country on June 4, 1994. My remains are now at Pretty Eagle Point, Bighorn Canyon.” Some of Red Star’s annotations are imagined, and reflect her own humor, such as “I can kick your ass with these eyes,” or “I am not a fan of the white man.”
In providing rich details of each man’s life, Red Star has illuminated their humanity and their individuality, and interrogated the pattern of displaying “anonymous” Native American subjects. As well, she has inserted herself as an artist and historian, engaging not only her tribal forbearers, but the broader experience of Native people past and present.
This acquisition was made possible by the bequest of Dr. Clyde W. Oyster, whose generous gift to the Museum has supported purchases of work by contemporary Native American artists.