Swathed in sumptuous tribal garments and adorned with opulent accessories, a Native American Crow chief and his young wife are the subjects of a black-and-white photograph taken in 1873 by a white photographer to commemorate their visit to Washington, DC. Along with eight other Crow delegates, they were invited to meet with President Ulysses S. Grant to discuss the US government’s plan to put a train through Crow territory. With hand-drawn lines, marks, and words in red ink that conspicuously outline, accentuate, and annotate the nineteenth-century photograph, contemporary Native American artist Wendy Red Star (Crow/Apsáalooke) stages an intervention in Portrait of Perits-Har-Sts (Old Crow) with His Wife, Ish-Ip-Chi-Wak-Pa-I-Chis (Good or Pretty Medicine Pipe) (2017), taking back the image and story of her own people from a government that viewed the sitters as ethnographic specimens.
The red lines and marks converge as a drawing that hovers on a plane separate from, yet contingent on and in discourse with, the photograph that resides in a more distant time and space. On and around Old Crow’s sleeves, neck, and shoes, Red Star’s red words identify the corresponding ermine skin of the chief’s jacket, the conch shell necklace, the quill wrapped horse-hair shirt, and the Lakota moccasins. Extensive notes written on the photograph detail biographical facts: Old Crow is twenty-two years older than his twenty-four-year-old wife, Good or Pretty Medicine Pipe; their one son named “His Enemy Is Dangerous,” died on July 31, 1894; and Pretty Medicine Pipe went on to have two more husbands—the third, a white man, next to whom she is buried.
Portrait of Perits-Har-Sts (Old Crow) with His Wife, Ish-Ip-Chi-Wak-Pa-I-Chis (Good or Pretty Medicine Pipe) navigates between personal and tribal sagas, connecting Native American history and contemporary culture within the ever-changing context of American history and identity. Even as Red Star asserts proprietorship over the narrative of the government photograph, she engages with it as personal research in which her zealous drawing over, around, and in-between the intricate articles of clothing seems to help her take in and internalize the information. The artist seems to have carved out fresh terrain for looking at and talking about the past as a chronicle of US history that belongs to Native and non-Native peoples alike. Her superimposition of a decorative and documentary matrix of prominent red graphic and linguistic signs over the ashen tones of the archival photograph offers a view of an American art that is striking as both a rebuke and humanization of history.