My Grandma’s Mamma, the Sioux, the Blackfeet and the photography of Evie Lovett
January 8th, 2010 by suzanne
Here I post diary entries from my grandma Maggie's (rather famous) late 1930s diary and fiery truth and wild musings from my writer's life in Brattleboro Vermont in the 21st century.
Still warm and damp. To lunch with Edith at Charles’, for a walk and home. Could not give M. injection after cooking syringe, etc… because bent needle trying to get it in rubber top of bottle of serum and scared to put it in him. After dinner Thomsons came in for bridge; said going to Florida in Feb, said Don went to Buffalo before vacation and went to seven dances in five days, Van gave New Year’s Eve party for 80.
January 8, 2010, Brattleboro, Vermont, What Suzanne (yours truly) was doing:
Not at all warm and damp in Brattleboro. Frigid and spitting snow all day. Evie Lovett came over this afternoon to chat about our collaborative show at the Vermont Center for Photography in February. Evie is a premier photographer, whose subject matter ranges from children playing dress-up to drag queens transforming backstage at the Rainbow Lounge to genocide survivors at a hospital in Rwanda.Her new show is a photo essay on Indian Days, a four day celebration of traditional dancing, drumming, singing, rodeos and carnival in Browning, Montana on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
The summer of 2006, I went out to the reservation with her. Browning is 4,000 feet up at the foot of the rockies and the wind blows all the time, the prairie grass is the color of gold and there are graveyards with names like Scabby Robe and Kicking Woman scratched into the granite. You can see for miles along the fence line, and the sky is like a great blue dome. Indian Days is celebrated for four days in July during which Browning fills up with people and all day long you hear the drums and traditional singers and you see Blackfeet dancing in feather headdresses and porcupine chestplates with bells down their legs and around their ankles. From the top of the ferris wheel, you can look down at the lit stalls where Blackfeet gamble, and you can see behind the carnie games, where boys in baseball caps kiss girls in tank tops, and everything smells like cotton candy.
During the day when the sun blares hot, you can go across to the field to the rodeo, where everything smells of worked leather and dust and horse, and there you fall in love with the bareback riders who race so fast around the ring the horses’ hooves sound like thunder.
We stayed with Darrell Kip, and his wife Roberta, who live a stone’s throw from the Greene where the drumming and dancing and singing take place. Their downstairs room, where we slept, is filled with books about the Blackfeet. Darrell, an unfathomably productive member of the tribe, sat out on the deck with us, smoking and telling stories. His family survived the Baker massacre, where 173 Blackfeet were killed ten miles from Shelby on the Marias River. The Baker Massacre has been forgotten by the United States government. The government will not designate the site and it will not pay damages.
The Blackfeet we met remembered Evie, and they were eager to show her the meanings of the paintings on the sides of their tipis, to introduce her to their sons and daughters. Evie creates a bridge with her camera. She didn’t just take pictures of the headdresses and the fancy dancers, she let the eye of her camera rest on the grandmothers with woven blankets around their shoulders, tipis being set up, children riding merry-go-rounds, a man sleeping in a slapdash portable church, and the veteran POW standing in his badges and metals.
The show we are doing will display her photographs. It will also display my text, the notes and observations I took while we were there. My text is supposed to be the view the camera didn’t catch, the sound of jingle shells when the women lifted their feet, the beating drums vibrating like a heartbeat in the listener’s body, the smell of gamma grass along Browning’s central biway, the sound of eagle feathers moving in a headress in twilight wind. But the truth is I am daunted by the task of putting text to Evie’s photography. Not only because her camera’s eye already says so much, showing the astonishing tenacity and strength of the human spirit, but also because I am learning the complexity of being involved with any project that has to do with an Indian nation. Until this project began, I did not fully understand the prejudices of photographers, journalist and anthropologists who have gone before us, how often people tend to work from stereotypes. I didn’t realize that people find it so frightening to see beyond the categories society sets up for us, to the humanity within. And I found myself wondering how I can explain why we went out there, what drove us to Browning , and how we felt being there.
Before Maggie was born, back in the late 1800’s, my great-grandma, Lena, decided not to get married like all the other college girls. She left Detroit on a train and went across the country to South Dakota, where she got a job teaching school on the Sioux reservation. Ever since I was a little girl this seemed right to me, though I could not have said why at the time. I think what most of our angst and decisions spiral down to is the issue of survival. Will I survive? Can I? I believe Lena, who later took Maggie around the world for her education, thought: Why not see what it is all about? Perhaps she wanted to live with these ultimate survivors, the ones the United States government had done everything they could to ruin. Maybe she wanted to see what it was like, to live on that desolate land no one else thought was fertile. When I thought of Lena there, I thought of her curiosity and her self-determination. I did not think of the sweat lodge, the headdress,the scalping, the buffalo, the lore, the vision quest or pipe. I thought of Lena at 21, off to a different country, riding the train out to Pine Ridge, agreeing to leave a little of herself behind, to surrender, to walk the edges of this life instead of staying safely in the middle.
And when I write text for this show, trying to figure out what I want to say, I think how, after my mother got divorced, I returned home from school one day to find she’d hung Lena’s hundred year old beaded moccasins and cradle board on the south wall, near the windows. When I saw them, I somehow I knew: my mother had found herself, my mother had claimed her independence. And perhaps, in that summer of 2006, right before I was to be married myself, when Evie and I went out to Browning, to photograph and to write, we were trying to capture that same sovereignty, that same adventurous spirit. We wanted to see if that spirit inside might be matched by what survived: the fancy dancing, the drumming, those bareback teenagers making thunder riding bareback.