Wendy Red Star, 1880 Crow Peace Delegation

Red Star annotated photographs to restore dignity and context to US government-issued photographs of Crow chiefs.

Wendy Red Star, 1880 Crow Peace Delegation: Peelatchiwaaxpáash/Medicine Crow (Raven), Peelatchixaaliash/Old Crow (Raven), Déaxitchish/Pretty Eagle, Bia Eélisaash/Large Stomach Woman (Pregnant Woman) aka Two Belly, Alaxchiiaahush/Many War Achievements or Plenty Coups aka Chíilaphuchissaaleesh/Buffalo Bull Facing The Wind, 2014, 10 inket prints and red ink on paper, 16 15/16 x 11 15/16 inches (each) © Wendy Red Star (Portland Art Museum)


Key points

  • The Crow Peace Delegation of 1880 included Medicine Crow and five other chiefs who traveled to Washington DC to discuss land rights and negotiations over building the Northern Pacific Railroad through Crow territory.
  • Although these are portraits of individual chiefs, the photographs reflect the deliberate erasure of Native American culture that served to dehumanize the Crow and other indigenous peoples in the U.S. The use of these images in popular reproductions today continues the practice of outsiders commercializing Indian identity.
  • Red Star uses her artistic process to assert each man’s individual identity and accomplishments, as well as to learn more about her own culture as a Crow Indian and to share it with others.

Additional resources:

Learn about this object at the Portland Museum of Art

Visit Wendy Red Star’s website

Learn more about Crow culture and history

Read more about the Bureau of American Ethnography that hired Bell and others to document Native American culture

View this online exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian addressing cultural appropriation of Native Americans

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] I’m at the Portland Art Museum with Wendy Red Star, an artist who produced an extraordinary series of annotated photographs.

Wendy Red Star: [0:13] I was doing research on two images of Medicine Crow, and what I found was that they were delegation portraits taken in 1880. Medicine Crow and five other chiefs traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with the president, discussing land and territory, and the Pacific Railroad was going to be placed through our territory.

Dr. Zucker: [0:36] These peace delegations, different Native Americans would travel to Washington for negotiations.

Wendy: [0:41] I had been seeing images of Medicine Crow being used for giant murals and for Honest Tea. It made me wonder, do they know who Medicine Crow is? Do they even know that is his name, and do they know why he sat down to take this photograph? I could say that probably not.

Dr. Zucker: [1:00] These are images that were appropriated for commercial use. Their meaning was transformed for other purposes, and there’s a devaluing of these people and of the culture that they represent that results.

Wendy: [1:12] 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.

Dr. Zucker: [1:21] These were images that were constructed by Anglo-Americans. These were not constructed by the Native Americans.

Wendy: [1:28] 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.

Dr. Zucker: [1:48] For photographs from 1880, they’re really sharp. They convey a lot of 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: [2:08] 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.

Dr. Zucker: [2:23] This was a vehicle for you, personally, to investigate Crow history, but more specifically the history of these individuals.

Wendy: [2:29] 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.

Dr. Zucker: [2:43] I think that was especially important because C.M. Bell, the photographer who’s 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. You’re reasserting their individuality, their place within their own society in a way that restores them to our common history.

Wendy: [3:05] 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. 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.

Dr. Zucker: [3:29] You’re taking something that was intentionally ethnographic and making it fine art.

Wendy: [3:33] I actually know their descendants and I participate in Crow culture, so they’re familiar to me. They are real people to me.

Dr. Zucker: [3:42] 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: [3:54] It is very personal. There are some funny things. With this Two Belly image, “I can kick your ass with these eyes.”

Dr. Zucker: [4:02] And it looks like he can.

Wendy: [4:03] Also in the same sense, I know his descendants who have written on the image, Eloise Plenty Hoops and John Adams.

Dr. Zucker: [4:10] Just as their clothing writes their history on them, the history that you’ve recovered, you’ve written back into these images.

Wendy: [4:18] This is why I love art. For me, I look at art as a way for me to learn. 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.

[4:32] The feather that you’ll see on Chief Plenty Coup on the back of his head, that meant that he was the first to touch an enemy within battle.

Dr. Zucker: [4:41] A counting coup.

Wendy: [4:42] And his name’s Chief Plenty Coup. If they have the white ermine on their leggings, that meant that they stole a horse within an enemy camp. They did these deeds which weren’t easy, and that is what they’re trying to tell you. “Chief” in Crow was “bacheeítche,” which means “good man.”

Dr. Zucker: [4:58] These are accomplished men. They’re men that have reason to be really proud of their positions and the acclaim that they would have had within their own society. But here in Washington, more than a thousand miles away from their home, they’re representing those accomplishments. They’re representing their identity within this alien environment.

Wendy: [5:17] From Montana, they had to take a wagon train with horses through the snow to Utah. From Utah, they went to Chicago.

[5:26] They actually became very ill, because this is the first time they’ve been around so many people. From Chicago, they were able to connect to Washington, D.C.

[5:36] 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, they’ll become afraid and realize they have no chance.

[5:51] But the fact that they brought all of their regalia shows that they knew that they needed to show their best to the president.

Dr. Zucker: [5:58] In many of the images, you have the sitter speaking their name in the Crow language. They are themselves reasserting their identity.

Wendy: [6:07] For me, the damage done to Indigenous people, the erasing of who they are, was very important to bring that back.

[6:15] It was really important for me to have them assert themselves like, “This is who I am. This is my name. I’m here to ensure the future generation of Crow people.”

[6:27] [music]

Cite this page as: Wendy Red Star at Portland Art Museum and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Wendy Red Star, 1880 Crow Peace Delegation," in Smarthistory, September 13, 2018, accessed June 10, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/wendy-red-star-1880-crow-peace-delegation-2/.