Saturday, June 23, 2012

Ping Pong and Indian Haircuts

Above Illustrations of Native American boys' haircuts, according to designated clan, from Francis La Flesche, "The Osage Tribe: Child Naming Rite" in 45th Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology (1925-26), Washington DC, 1928. Top row (left to right): Head and tail of elk; head, horns and tail of bison; tuft of hair on bison's back. Second row: Head, body and tail of small birds; head, wings and tail of eagle; turtle shell, with head, feet and tail. Third row: Reptile teeth;  a compass, showing four directional points; shaggy side of the wolf. Bottom row: Horns and tail of bison; head and tail of deer; and head, tail and immature horns of a young bison.


Until recently, I had no idea that the Lakota Indians who performed in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show enjoyed playing ping pong. For more about this, check out the online photos of one of their games at the Denver Public Library's website. The spectators are other Wild West performers, including Mexican vaqueros, Russian Cossacks, US cavalrymen, cowboys, a Rough Rider, and other Native Americans. Seated in the center behind the table is a man in a suit who is holding up paper money, so presumably there was some gambling involved.


In 1893, concurrent with the Columbian Exposition or the Chicago World's Fair (but not officially part of it), the Wild West played in Chicago from May through October. There is a detailed account of what happened during the show's single most profitable season in L.C. Moses, Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians 1883-1933 (Albuquerque NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1996). Here's an excerpt (p. 140)—

That season, Cody's Show Indians made good money, toured Chicago, took boat rides on Lake Michigan, ate peanuts and popcorn until they could eat no more, bought boutonnieres and funny coconut-fiber hats and wore them proudly, and on one occasion rode the merry-go-round [a carousel with wooden horses] by the hour. One evening in the high summer of Chicago's White City, fifteen Lakota led by Rocky Bear and No Neck mounted the painted ponies. As the carousel picked up speed, No Neck, holding the reins in both hands, gave a full-throated yell. Others in his party joined him. The News-Record placed the scene in its proper context. The Show Indians, observed the Record, "seem to like being jerked around on a carousel. They prefer it to the art galleries, and some people who are not Indians feel the same way." In all, about twenty-seven million people, a few hundred Indians among them, visited the fair. Most, Indians and non-Indians alike, probably had a glorious time.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Georges Braque's Pesky Squirrel

Above © Les Coleman, Touch. Felt pen, toilet paper roll (2006). Photographed by Nancy Fouts. As published in Les Coleman, Dirt and Other Works. Coracle Press, 2009. Courtesy the artist.


The following is a story told by Pablo Picasso, as quoted in Francoise Gilot (his former wife) and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964, pp. 76-77—

I remember one evening I arrived at [Georges] Braque's studio. He was working on a large oval still life with a package of tobacco, a pipe, and all the usual paraphernalia of Cubism. I looked at it, drew back and said, "My poor friend, this is dreadful. I see a squirrel in your canvas." Braque said, "That's not possible." I said, "Yes, I know, it's paranoiac vision, but it so happens that I see a squirrel. That canvas is made to be a painting, not an optical illusion. Since people need to see something in it, you want them to see a package of tobacco, a pipe, and the other things you're putting in. But for God's sake, get rid of that squirrel." Braque stepped back a few feet and looked carefully and sure enough, he too saw the squirrel, because that kind of paranoiac vision is extremely communicable. Day after day Braque fought that squirrel. He changed the structure, the light, the composition, but the squirrel always came back, because once it was in our minds it was almost impossible to get it out. However different the forms became, the squirrel somehow always managed to return. Finally, after eight or ten days, Braque was able to turn the trick and the canvas again became a package of tobacco, a pipe, a deck of cards, and above all a Cubist painting.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Why Sitting Bull Wore Goggles

O.S. Goff, Sitting Bull (1881). Courtesy Library of Congress.
This is a curious photograph of Sitting Bull (1831-1890), holding a pipe and wearing what seem to be goggles. You can find the original photo file online at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs website. It was taken by Orlando Scott Goff on July 31, 1881, only about twelve days after the great Indian leader had returned to the US from Canada with his followers, in order to surrender.

But why is he wearing these goggles? As explained by James Welch in Killing Custer (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007, p. 258), he had a terrible eye infection at the time—

Sitting Bull certainly did not look well. He and his people had not eaten properly for three years. He was dressed in rags. He had a severe eye infection. He was demoralized.…[He was wearing] dirty pants and shirt, red paint on his face and a pair of smoked goggles shielding his infected eye…

Other people who were contemporaries with Sitting Bull also mention that he was wearing goggles when they met him. For example, this is a passage from Judson Elliot Walker, Campaigns of General Custer in the Northwest (Jenkins and Thomas, 1881, p. 90)—

He [Sitting Bull] wore a pair of green wire goggles, so we could not see his naked eyes, but it is said that he has a pair of as keen eagle eyes as ever was set between two high cheek bones on any red man in the aboriginal tribes.

And this is from J.W. Reading, "A Short Biography of Sitting Bull" in Locomotive Engineers Journal (1911), p. 219—

He [Sitting Bull] wore a pair of colored goggles, which served to partly hide the expression on his face, a thing that I regretted very much.

But maybe that isn't the (only) answer. I suggest that because it's just as easy to find eyewitness references to other Lakota Indians wearing colored goggles. When Laura Winthrop Johnson met a group of Lakota as early as 1875 (six years before this photograph of Sitting Bull), she reported that—

Several wore blue goggles—we knew not whether for use or beauty.

In addition, there are at least two photographs of the Oglala Lakota chief Red Cloud (1822-1909) in which he too is wearing goggles ("to protect his sensitive eyes"). Taken c.1891 by Clarence G. Morledge, those photographs are reproduced in Frank Henry Goodyear, Red Cloud: Photographs of a Lakota Chief.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Joseph Podlesnik | Marksman Par Excellence

© Joseph Podlesnik, Self-Portrait

In the early 1980s, Joseph Podlesnik and I were both living in Milwaukee. He was a student, and I was a teacher. Out of kindness, he likes to say that I was his teacher, but I don't think I taught him much, if anything. For one thing, I was a graphic designer, a collagist who had more or less given up drawing a few years earlier. But I have always loved strong drawing, and Joe, even as an undergraduate, was an extraordinary drawing-based artist (I hesitate to say "draftsman" because that doesn't quite describe his work), admired by teachers and students alike. Now he himself is a teacher, and he teaches drawing in a way that is based on intensified seeing. I continue to be amazed by his drawings, as well as his knowledge of vision. Above, for example, is a magnificent self-portrait he did about 8 or 10 years ago, using only a ballpoint pen. What impresses me so much is that every mark is both dead-on accurate and alive. I am reminded of what Hungarian-born artist-designer Gyorgy Kepes wrote in The New Landscape in Art and Science (Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1956)—

There are two basic morphological archetypes—expression of order, coherence, discipline, stability on the one hand; expression of chaos, movement, vitality, change on the other.

It is common enough to see drawings that adhere too much to one of those polarities, while all but ignoring the other extreme. Joe Podlesnik (in his films as well as his drawings) achieves a masterful mixture of both.

Wild West, Hot Dogs and Gertrude Kasebier

Gertrude Kasebier, Portrait of Charging Thunder (1898)

Above A studio portrait of a Native American (Lakota) named Charging Thunder, as photographed by Gertrude Kasebier (1852-1934) at her Fifth Avenue Studio in New York.

Kasebier had studied with Arthur Wesley Dow (whose theory of composition also influenced Georgia O'Keeffe), and was associated with O'Keeffe's partner Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession. After attending the Wild West show in Brooklyn, she secured permission from Buffalo Bill to photograph a group of the Wild West show Indians in her studio.

The photography session took place on Sunday, April 24, 1898. It lasted for three hours, during which the guests were served with tea and hot dogs ("hot frankfurters between unbuttered bread"). It isn't certain, but apparently one of Kasebier's guests was Charging Thunder (shown in the Kasebier portrait above). Details about the session and a selection of the portraits can be found in Michelle Delaney, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Warriors: A Photographic History by Gertrude Kasebier (New York: Harper Collins, 2007).

There seems some confusion about whether there might have been two performers named Charging Thunder. The person in this photograph appears in another photograph (also taken by Kasebier) with his Native American wife. However, elsewhere online, we have found a story (with photos) of another Lakota Indian named Charging Thunder (they certainly don't look like the same person), who was part of the Wild West troupe when they performed in Salford, England, in 1903. This second Charging Thunder, who was 26 years old at the time, had fallen in love with one of the show's horse trainers, a woman named Josephine, and when the Wild West left town, the two of them remained in the UK, married and raised a family. For the rest of their lives, they lived in the vicinity of Manchester. Charging Thunder changed his name to George Edward Williams, registered as an immigrant, and worked for many years at the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, where he took care of the elephants. According to BBC Manchester, two of his grandchildren have recently been located in the UK.

It's nice to see the Kasebier photo of the first Charging Thunder with his dog. Back then, it was commonly rumored that some of the Native Americans considered dog meat a delicacy. Here for example is a paragraph from the New York Times (Thursday, June 28, 1888, p. 2)—

WHERE DOGS ARE DISAPPEARING: The refining influence of civilization has not lessened the strong taste that Buffalo Bill's Wild West Indians have for dog flesh, and the canine population of Staten Island is rapidly diminishing. New Shirt yesterday devoured with apparent relish an expensive poodle that had been used to much better treatment than it received at the hands of the fighting warrior. The show is still drawing large crowds.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wild West Indians in Paris

© Roy R. Behrens, Indigenous Nativity (2004). Purchase online.

I've been reading about Native Americans in connection with a talk I give for Humanities Iowa on Iowa-born Wild West showman William F. Cody. It seems clear that throughout his life, the convivial scout had a propensity for the pleasantries of "firewater" in large amounts. Earlier in the 19th century, according to James Welch in Killing Custer (NY: Norton, 1994), "the white man's water" was a brew of "tobacco, capsicum, molasses, peppers, and alcohol mixed with river water and whatever else could produce a fire in the belly" (p. 26).

In 1889, Cody took his Wild West show (including a number of Native Americans) on a performance tour of Europe, concurrent with the World's Fair in Paris. It was the Eiffel Tower's premiere, and all sorts of celebrities attended, as is vividly described by Jill Jonnes in Eiffel's Tower (NY: Penguin, 2009). The Native Americans enjoyed enormous popularity with the French public. According to Jonnes, their performances were so well known in Paris that—

the clowns at the Cirque d'Été [summer circus] had worked up a parody called Kachalo-Ball. The real Wild West Indians instantly gave it cachet by attending the show in groups each night, cheering wildly as the French clowns satirized their riding and their wars and attacks. When the clowns took to dancing their version of Sioux war dances, the visiting Native Americans laughed so hard they had tears running down their faces.