Peelatchiwaaxpáash/Medicine Crow (Raven) (2014) is a diptych in the series “1880 Crow Peace Delegation” in which Wendy Red Star enlarged portraits of Crow (Apsáalooke) Tribe members who traveled to Washington, DC to conduct business with the US government, an effort which ultimately resulted in forced reduction of Crow land to the boundaries of the Crow reservation. The original portraits are by Charles Milton (C.M.) Bell who had portrait studios in Washington, DC and worked for US government agencies such as the Geological Survey of the Territories in the late 1800s. Red Star’s photographs are printed 25 by 17 inches, in traditional mat boards and dark wood frames, with about three inches between them. The materiality of C.M. Bell’s glass negatives—the left image shows envelope creases in the emulsion; the right image a large diagonal crack from middle-left of the picture’s edge splintering into two jagged lines to upper-right. Black and white, gradations of gray, diffuse daylight, soft shadows, overall low contrast.
Details reveal a traditional late 1800s portrait studio—a cultural and political context intertwined with the world both past and present. On the left Medicine Crow (Raven) sits on a wood chair with ornamentation and a fabric seat, centered on a round platform with tassel trim, a curved delineation which sets the stage. In the portrait on the right, our view of Medicine Crow moves closer, waist up, face in profile. While not a mugshot, I am reminded of Alphonse Bertillon’s standardization of the mugshot profile in the 1880s. Histories of physiognomy concentrated by photography: the direction by C.M. Bell to pose Medicine Crow within a lexicon of display and othering. Every image is viewed through context of place. Red Star’s survey exhibition is in Ohio, an Iroquois word for beautiful river, the Ohio River. While the US government does not recognize Native American tribal land within Ohio, many tribes have called Ohio home. And yes, the city of Columbus is named after Christopher Columbus.
In the viewing space of the museum, from afar I see patterns of red lines on the photographs. Red ink outlines and extends from Medicine Crow. Upon closer inspection, lines drawn by the artist’s hand—Wendy Red Star meticulously traced the contours of Medicine Crow—clothes, hair, the large feather he holds in right hand. Red Star’s outlining expands to her words with arrows pointing at Medicine Crow. This shift in viewing from afar (abstract pattern) to up close (words and legibility) creates an enmeshed transition from picture viewing to reading—scanning across the picture plane vis-à-vis Red Star’s notations which range from literal description, historical account, personal observations that imbue humor, and contexts within Crow culture.
The photograph on the left includes “brass rings,” “hair extension,” “eagle feather fan symbol of leadership,” “six wives.” Along the left upper margin of the image a quote from Lt. John Bourke: “Medicine Crow, the Crow chief, looked like a devil in his war bonnet of feathers, furs and buffalo horns.” In the right photograph—with an arrow pointing at the large feather fan, “the eagle and large hawk are my spirit helpers.” As well as “white clay in my hair,” “hair bows represent physically overcoming an enemy and slitting their throat. I killed two,” “visionary medicine man.” Then, arrows pointing outward from Medicine Crow’s eyes, uncanny and foreboding visions, “something black with round legs puffing smoke and pulling box like objects behind it,” “wagons flying in the sky.” Physical vision and visions projecting outward, oncoming technologies of brutal colonization.
Red Star’s red ink outlining and writing cut into C.M. Bell’s backdrop, the US government’s anonymous photographic context for Medicine Crow. Inextricably bound with the appropriated image, Red Star’s words create a scaffold of personhood that touch, simultaneously acknowledge, and lift away from portraiture’s underlying violent silencing and colonialist frameworks. Through linguistic picturing and denotative insistence, at times with humor, Peelatchiwaaxpáash/Medicine Crow (Raven) emblematizes the intergenerational duration of Wendy Red Star’s feminist Crow archival research and art.