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Interview Transcript
Catlin's Quest
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

Catlin as Artist

We can go back and take potshots at writers of that time and he is an easy one. He's an easy target because he writes in this very romantic language, and he writes about the noble savage, and he writes about them being the children in the happy wilderness, and I think that that idea probably has played a role in Washington because he wasn't alone in that idea—there were so many people who had that same idea, and who wrote from the same point of view. Hollywood movies carried that sort of myth.

Maybe I'm making light of that, but in a sense though, he was a man of his time and I think he probably had more humanistic qualities than maybe other people did. The other people just totally discounted Indian people. They wouldn't have gone out and stayed with Indian people like he did, in a village. Even if he did feel like they should be saved by Christianity, that was a common idea at that time, that they weren't going to go to Heaven if they didn't have Christianity in their lives, and to be disgusted by some of their habits and—we just talked about this earlier. We saw our friends who travel in the world and their taking exception to how other people live. And that's in today's world. And we think people are very worldly now. Well, people didn't travel that much then and they certainly weren’t as worldly as people are now. And people still have those kinds of prejudices about other people. Bottom line is, it's xenophobia. I like that word. And every child in school, they should know that word.

Well, this was just seventy years earlier than that. And I don’t think people were any more knowledgeable about culture or cultural differences or hegemony at the turn of the century than they were seventy years before that. So in one sense, I’m thankful that he painted all these paintings. He is an artist, when I look at them.

A Changed World

This was the beginning of a new world for us and the fact that you had to go to Washington to seek or negotiate for your own land, which you had owned and now was being taken away from you; and in return you got smallpox, blankets, and whiskey, and you got wormy beef instead of buffalo—all of those things that people were dealing with at the turn of the century and then that my father dealt with as a young man. He wasn't a citizen in this country. He couldn't vote until he was a grown-up. Those were very trying times on my reservation. They were dangerous, violent, difficult times. People were ill. I think Darcy McNichol writes about life at Flathead in some of his books. I think of my father, I can actually envision my father in places some of the characters that Darcy McNichol writes about. But I use this particular picture [George Catlin, Wi-jún-jon, Piegeon's Egg Head (The Light), going to and returning from Washington, 1831] because it speaks to me of those kinds of things happening. I mean, there's implied violence here. When I see this man here, in this picture, he's become a different man here. He has a difference stance here from over here.

A Changed Culture

This one [story of Wi-jún-jon] is sort of humorous but at the same time when you read about the background of this and the way Catlin wrote about it, he talks about how this man went home and then he wore this clothing and strutted around until finally one day a man there killed him. And people there were very disappointed in him, and the stories that he told them they thought were fabricated. But then, they hadn't experienced what he had experienced either. So they found him not to be believable, and they thought that he was quite a liar.

Living on the Reservation

Going home is important for me, because it keeps me humble and makes me remember my childhood and where I came from, and remember my roots, and know that we still have to keep working to solve some of these problems for just basic survival on the reservations. And then people say, "Well, why do they choose to live there?" I think in a sense, they're better there than they are after relocation in the cities. For to me life is even more violent and harder, and I think at least there [on the reservation], they have the outdoors to sustain them, too. I think life is easier there.

I tell stories about different parts of reservation life, like when members of my family went to school at the Catholic school, it was thought that women should become maids in households in Missoula for the rich white people, or nannies for their children, because it was thought that that was all that we could do. That we weren't smart enough to be anything else. So that, I talk about that right here, [Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Paper Dolls for a Post Columbian World with Ensembles Contributed by the U.S. Government, 1991, Collection of Bernice and Harold Steinbaum] about the maid's uniform and what these different clothes would be used for. Like this is an outfit that you would go to the get your government rations. When people were not allowed to hunt and gather their own food and the rations would be wormy beef and moldy flour. And so I show a traditional reservation outfit with the vest and the armbands here for a man, and then here a capote, what you see there because we used to take those old trade blankets and cut them and people still wear these at home.

I even have a paper doll box of commodities that you can stand up with your paper dolls. Like Barbie has sunglasses, and she has a Porsche car. I have a box of U.S. government commodities that has in it canned milk, which gives us lactose intolerance; white sugar, which gives us diabetes; and white flour, which gives us wheat allergies; and lard, which gives us gall bladder trouble. And then, I have a headdress here which is collected by white people to decorate their homes after the priests and the US Government banned our cultural ways such as speaking Salish, practicing our religion, and drumming, singing, or dancing. These are sold at Sotheby's today for thousands of dollars to white collectors who are seeking romance in their lives.

There's always a bittersweet kind of thing, tongue-in-cheek, and I'm poking fun, too, at things that have happened because one of the greatest survival mechanisms that all of the tribes have is laughing at their predicaments, poking fun. People would just see this as the most bleak kind of humor. Why do they take situations and—it's what you would call black comedy, you know—in your darkest hour to make a joke out of something? I've heard people make jokes out of some of the bleakest situations, and then everybody laughs together. But it helps ease the moment. It helps ease people through the hard times. So in a sense this is like reservation humor, that when I do something like take Barbie and Ken and then make these outfits, these outfits are pretty gruesome here. It's a maid's uniform and talking about how she got the uniform here so she could be a cleaning lady after she has a good education at the Catholic school.

Reading as a Way of Coping

When I learned to read, I would take as many books as the librarian would let me. I started work as a field hand when I was eight for the Nisei [second-generation Japanese American] farmers in the fields, and I would have to hide to read books because my then-stepmother disapproved of that. I mean, she had chores she wanted us to do, and so I tried to get those done as quickly as I could. Then I would sometimes climb in a tree and hide there or places behind the barn to read books. I was just absolutely—that opened doors in my head to other places in the world. I read Jack London. I read the African writer who wrote She [H. Rider Haggard]. There were books, a whole series of books by that English writer, about the Boer War. I read that series of books. And then I read other books that they just had, like Girl of the Limber Lost and books like that, Freckles—all those kinds of books. I read books about animals. I remember a story about a horse working in the Welsh mines. And how I cried after I read that book, it was so sad.

But you know, those two things became my outlets, my ways of dealing with the world. Of dealing with poverty and with the difficulty of making my way through what you would call a minefield of life. And they were what sustained me. So then, when I was about sixteen, I found a matchbook and it had a thing you could send away for, an artist course. My dad let me take some of my field money and send away for this course. I started doing that at night out of these books—drawing out of there. And I must tell you, I couldn't get the chickens drawn right. I had to do them, but they always came out in my own style, and if they could have slapped me across the wrists or whatever, they probably would have, because they kept sending them back all the time and making me redraw my chickens.

Living the Good and the Bad

And of course that became a painting, Stand Up Sit Down Turn Around. I made that into a painting. And it could have several meanings. It could have the meaning that in government schools you're ordered to do this, and it took away your language and you were taught English; and you were taught to stand up, sit down, turn around in the military style, which is what they did. And what I like doing in my paintings is to show duality, like yin and yang, because in Indian life everything is always a mixture of good and bad. It's not balanced so you would see it like the yin and the yang. It's always like this. Indian people always feel like something isn't right if it's not. If you notice on the Navajo blankets, always on the side you'll find if it's black, if it has a black line for a border, you'll find a white spot. And that's because they want it to be imperfect. When you see beadwork at home, like the flat bags, you'll find a field of beautiful sky blue, because we use blue in the background, and then you'll find a white bead in there. That's done on purpose. That's to show that nothing is ever perfect. Isn't that a wonderful thing to think about and to carry with you? Nothing is ever perfect. It lets you get on with life. It lets you let go of that and move on down the road, you know? So I'm particularly fond of those kinds of things, and especially when I see that you could call it sort of like folk philosophy. But it's also really bound and tied to the religion, too.

Indian Medicine

Why the drug companies now go to South America to the medicine people and come out to our reservations because the medicine people know so much more about what plants can give and what they can do and what they can heal. And they're looking for those discoveries. They need things for AIDS and for our immune systems against cancer and other things that we're dealing with now. The plants and the animals are the base to all of our religion and all of our life, and they're all tied and bound together, so the teaching stories that tell us who we are and how we're supposed to behave may have Badger and Blue Jay and Bear. They may have Porcupine and they have a spruce tree and they have a certain mountain, and they have the Medicine Tree. They have all the things, all the parts and pieces of life in the Bitterroots, you know, from Montana, because that was our range at one time. And it was only [the] Flathead range. All of the other people who have come in—the Sioux, the Assiniboine and the Crow—those people were all pushed by the invaders to where we are now. George Horse Capture was over there somewhere. He wasn't in my land. He was over there, east of me. And so by the study of all of that, all of that becomes the basis and informs all of our religious philosophy. In every bit of work that I do, there are always the sacred and the secular in some place in my work. In everything in there, it has both. You'll find references to native philosophy and thought, which occupies every part of life. It's an encompassing kind of thing.

Indian Imprints on the Land

The thing that's so remarkable to me is that when I went to Head-Smashed-In some years ago with the tribal college at home that my cousin founded, when you get up on the rim rocks and you look down below, and you see the tipi rings, because in those days when they pitched the tipis, they didn't peg them like we do now. In those days, they were smaller and the buffalo hides made them quite heavy, so they had to be smaller. Also because we didn't have horses. And so they put rocks around there. Well, the rocks scarred the land. That terrain is very delicate, like this is here. It doesn't renew itself readily. Hundreds of years old! You see like in my paintings, the layers of time going back which is so important to Indian people, this layering. And when you stand on the rim rocks, it raises the hair on the back of your neck because you're looking out at time, maybe a hundred and fifty years since the last encampment there for the buffalo jump.

Web of Life: The Buffalo

This is where the Pishkun [buffalo jump] happened. The buffalo were driven over here way before horses. Time immemorial, they were driven and stacked at the bottom and the bones go several hundred feet into the ground. We don't know how old it is. In here, it's an amazing sight. You know when you think about how old things are here and how long life has survived here. And then when I go to these encampments, I think about that. I carry that experience with me. And you know when I'm watching the children mimicking the grown-ups, and the kids are sitting on the wagons and they're drumming and singing and they don't know the words yet, but they mimic the sounds.

And then, in the summertime, we were in the mountains picking berries and digging for roots because my tribe had six of the seven life zones, and so we have a lot of medicine and a lot of plant life that's involved with our foods. That's still true today. And the elders are still dependent on those foods. So we had a whole food cropping business. That's a type of farming, just not by European standards.

Moving with Purpose

Well, I think about that because we were nomadic and we were a trading tribe, so my family would go on what they call salt trains, or mule trains, up into Canada and trade. That's how my dad was born up there and that's how I got my Métis grandfather.

Anyway, that was just the history of all of us, plateau or plains. We were always moving. When they called us hunter-gatherers, it always sounds like we're just kind of wandering out there in this wilderness and in this empty space. Well, first of all, it wasn't empty space. It was all occupied. We all had our territories that we moved within and we all knew what they were. And then, secondly, we actually had places to go. And seasonally, before we had tipis we had cedar dugout houses and we would go across the mountains to hunt with the Nez Perce and other Shuswapan or Salish speakers and then up into Canada to trade with Crees.

The Circle of Past, Present, and Future

The past is always with us. So when I say that life makes a circle, the past has to be part of that and you pick that up and bring it into the present so it loops and it makes this circle, this ever-moving circle, and the past is always right there in the present because we can't make any decisions or move ahead without understanding what the elders have taught us, or the philosophy or thought that goes into making us a tribe or a community, or even religiously, what impact it has on the people. So that's why the past and all of its ideas about community and extended community have to always be brought into the discussion or revered or reinforced in all the prayers. And so that's why I say life is not linear, it doesn't move. Actually, Europeans look more, I think, into the future actually than Indian people do. We do have the sense that we figure seven generations out—that's the Iroquois idea to think about what impact this would have on your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren if you cut this tree down. You want to assess that.

"You Don't Take More Than You Need"

But in terms of a constant kind of living into the future, other than the consequences it would have for your children, I don't think Indian people live more in the present in a sense than they actually do. There are some real differences about material things and acquisition of wealth. Indian people haven't been so much interested in that because our past has dictated to us that you don't take more than you need. So, for instance, if we're digging up a bed of bitterroot here, we're only going to take what we need from this season, and then we'll leave the rest and certainly you have to shuck it there. Which is a type of farming. I talked to Jack Weatherford about this one time. And I said when you draw a division between Native America and farming and European and farming, you have to put your cultural-turning-around headset on because it's a different way of thinking. But the end, the manifestation is the same.

Twelve Thousand Years of Harvest

You have to eat, and you have to make sure that you have food for the future. Which is what farming is about, you know, sustaining yourself. So how you crop things doesn't really matter, you know. The fact is that you do do that and they—somehow when they write about us they write about us as being oh, we're out there, we just stumble across this berry bush and all of a sudden here we have a little harvest of berries and what a merry accident that is. And it's not like that at all. There are old ancient huckleberry places where my tribe has gone for thousands of years as far as we know, I mean back to when the glacier came, and we know we've been there that long, just because of the artifacts that are up on Ted Turner's ranch right now. We know we've been there twelve thousand years, but we're sure we've been there longer than that. So those old traditional sweetgrass beds and all the different berries and cherries and foods that we're attuned to that we use for stews in the wintertime and how we can, we invented that way before recreationists knew anything about dehydrated food or dried food.

Pemmican is almost a complete food. It's dried meat jerky, which was pounded up. It had been smoked and dried. Pounded up, and it's like dehydrated food that campers would use. If you went to the camping store and mountain climbers would get a package of frozen food or dehydrated food, Indian people all through the Americas have made dehydrated food. In the Andes all their potatoes are dehydrated by freezing, thawing, freezing, thawing, and sitting in the sun, and so this food was dried and then pounded with a mixture of berries and fat, and you have vitamin C and you had protein and then a bit of fat which you need in the wintertime. And you could carry this food with you all winter. It's a very important food, and actually when the traders came in, and the trappers, they learned all of those things from Indian people.

Indian Versus European Outdoor Life

In Europe, people didn't go out and go camping because they were afraid of the forests and the woods. If you look at the old paintings of Europe, you see the mountains look like dragons or something. And people lived in these forts. Europeans were like real scaredy-cats of the outdoors. They didn't feel comfortable there. And, of course, they had a lot more stuff—they had their big musclely horses which had to be bred to carry all of the armor and the wagons and the cannons, and so because of all that, that made it very hard for them to go camping.

Art, Life, Food, and the Buffalo

What's in my art is what my life is composed of. So it has traditional dresses, shirts, vests, buffalo. My tribe had the first buffalo herd in this country. The Allards went up to Canada and brought the herd back and we started the first herd. Now I saw the other day, I forget how many tribes, fifty-some tribes right now have herds, and we're increasing those herds. One, because the meat is so much better nutrition and much better if we can eat some of the old foods. We're actually healthier if we can. Just because physically, our bodies still haven't adapted to white sugar and white flour and fried foods. Most of the people at home don't have gallbladders anymore because the commodity foods are so bad for them. And the European foods are so bad for them. We do have a lot of physical ailments from the European food yet. We're not adapted to that.

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