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Wendy Red Star, 1880 Crow Peace Delegation

Wendy Red Star, a Crow artist, brings life to old photos of Native American chiefs. She adds notes to highlight their achievements and culture. Her work challenges the misuse of these images and restores their true identity. Wendy's art bridges the gap between history and the present, making it a unique educational journey. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(light piano music) - [Steven] I'm at the Portland Art Museum. With Wendy Red Star, an artist who produced an extraordinary series of annotated photographs. - [Wendy] I was doing research on two images of Medicine Crow and what I found was that they were delegation portraits taken in 1880. And Medicine Crow and five other chiefs traveled to Washington DC to meet with the president discussing land and territory. The Pacific Railroad was going to be placed through our territory. - [Steven] These peace delegations, different Native Americans would travel to Washington for negotiations. - [Wendy] I had been seeing images of Medicine Crow being used for giant murals and for Honest Tea and it made me wonder, do they know who Medicine Crow is? Do they even know that it's his name and do they know why he sat down to take this photograph? And I can say that, probably not. - [Steven] So these were images that were appropriated for commercial use. Their meaning was transformed for other purposes. And there's a kind of devaluing of these people and of the culture that they represent that results. - [Wendy] As a Crow woman who grew up on the Crow Indian Reservation, I am viewing these men as something totally different than a non-native person or a non-Crow. - [Steven] So these were images that were constructed by Anglo-Americans, these were not constructed by the Native Americans. - [Wendy] No, but the beauty of looking at these portraits is you can see their personality and their style creating this tension between the white photographer's perspective and that government perspective and their own individuality and their own pride too, of showing who they are and who their nation is. - [Steven] And for photographs from 1880, they're really sharp, they convey a lot of visual information. But you haven't left the photographs alone. The figures are enlivened by these annotations with arrows and outlines accentuating who they are and what they're wearing with a level of detail that invites the viewer to spend time looking. - [Wendy] If we look at this full length portrait of Medicine Crow looking at this thing that looks like a bow, it's called a hair bow. In order for him to wear that he had to do a certain war deed, in this case it was to overcome an enemy and to slice their throat. - [Steven] So this was a vehicle for you personally to investigate Crow history, but more specifically the history of these individuals. - [Wendy] I wanted to show the viewer that these are real people. These aren't just a symbol of the native spirit or a chief. I wanted to show that this is much more complicated than this aesthetically pleasing image. - [Steven] And I think that was especially important because C.M. Bell, the photographer who was responsible for these images, is sometimes criticized for not having even identified the sitter. Sometimes failing to identify the nation that the man came from. And so you're reasserting their individuality, their place within their own society, in a way that restores them to our common history. - [Wendy] They didn't really care about them as individuals, they were more specimens and their material culture was collected and put in natural history museums because native people were viewed as part of the natural world. It kinds of gets you into the thinking of the time that these native indigenous people were put in that position so that it was easier to then dehumanize them. - [Steven] So you're taking something that was intentionally ethnographic and making it fine art. - [Wendy] I actually know their descendants and I participate in Crow culture, so they're familiar to me. They are real people to me. - [Steven] So some of your annotations are very specific, iconographic references, this means this. But some of them are commentary, some of them are humorous and all of it becomes therefore very personal. - [Wendy] It is very personal. So yeah, there are some funny things. With this Two Belly image, I can kick your ass with these eyes. - [Steven] (laughs) Looks like he can. - [Wendy] But also in the same sense, I know his descendants who have written on the image, Eloise Plenty Hoops and John Adams. - [Steven] So just as their clothing writes their history on them, the history that you've recovered, you've written back into these images. - [Wendy] This is why I love art. For me I look at art as a way for me to learn and this body of work took me on this incredible educational adventure. I didn't realize that they had to do these four specific things in order to become a chief. The feather that you'll see on Chief Plenty Coups on the back of his head, that meant that he was the first to touch an enemy within battle. - [Steven] A kind of counting coup. - [Wendy] And his name's Chief Plenty Coups. If they have the white ermine on their leggings, that meant that they stole a horse within an enemy camp. So they did these deeds which weren't easy and that is what they're trying to tell you. Chief in Crow is bacheeitche, which means good man. - [Steven] So these are really accomplished men, they're men that have reason to be really proud of their positions and the kind of acclaim that they would have had within their own society. But here, in Washington, more than 1,000 miles away from their home, they're representing those accomplishments, they're representing their identity within this alien environment. - [Wendy] From Montana, they had to take a wagon train with horses, through the snow, to Utah. So from Utah they went to Chicago. And they actually became very ill, because this is the first time they've been around so many people. And then from Chicago they were able to connect to Washington D.C. And this trip they actually spent several months in Washington, which is a tactic that the government liked to use for getting native people to sign documents. Make them homesick, or just show them all your military and they'll become afraid and realize they have no chance. But the fact that they've brought all of their regalia shows that they knew that they needed to show their best to the president. - [Steven] In many of the images, you actually have the sitter speaking their name in the Crow language and so they are themselves reasserting their identity. - [Wendy] For me the damage done to indigenous people, the erasing of who they are, was very important to bring that back. So it was really important for me to have them assert themselves, like, this is who I am this is my name and I'm here to ensure the future generation of Crow people. (upbeat piano music)