Charlie Russell’s Lost West

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Though Russell was renowned as the Cowboy Artist, the elegiac strain in his work emerged most unmistakably in his Indian pictures. The sum of his personal western experience had been immeasurably enriched by one memorable winter (1888-89) spent among the Bloods in southern Alberta, for his six-month sojourn was suffused with the instant nostalgia of woodsmoke and tanned hides and the muted promise of escape from the humdrum of civilized routine that Indian camps have always held for Americans. While many of his Montana contemporaries subscribed to the frontier maxim that the only good Indian was a dead one, Russell, almost from his first contact with the Plains tribes while still under Jake Hoover’s tutelage, had come to cherish a deep and abiding admiration for them. He acquired a proficiency in sign language over the years, and was adopted by the Bloods as Ah-wahcous, “the antelope.” He made the effort to understand the Indian and thus could not share the simplistic views of his time and place. His affinity for the red man followed naturally from his own beliefs. A proud people, unvanquished even in defeat, the Indians were the true lovers of the land, the true Americans. For Russell, who himself had been displaced by progress, the Indian became the most compelling symbol of the West that was.

Russell delighted in depicting the classic Plains culture. Buffalo hunts, intertribal skirmishes, a warrior risking himself for a daring coup in battle (a necessity in a society that reserved all honor for the brave), horse-stealing expeditions, camp life, and the village on the move were among his favorite subjects. Even in his numerous paintings and drawings of Indians and whites at the moment of confrontation, wary and prepared for the worst, Russell tended to view the scene from the vantage point of the red man. Ensconced high on a bluff, a party of warriors would be intently studying some manifestation of white civilization below them—a fur-trade caravan, a wagon train, a fort, a riverboat, or a locomotive. Or they might instead be puzzling over wagon ruts or railroad tracks slashing across their buffalo range. In such scenes one brave usually has his hand clasped over his mouth in wonderment at the inexplicable ways of the white intruder.

Much less frequently Russell portrayed the lot of the contemporary Indian. His wax model In the While Man’s World depicted a Cree peddling buffalo-horn hat racks to keep from starvation. Despite the circumstances, his dignity remains. A pen drawing, done in 1899 and titled The Last of His Race , showed a wizened Indian patriarch squating on the ground, wrapped in a shabby blanket, his weight resting on a staff. A white girl, pedalling by on her bicycle, glances back over her shoulder at this pathetic relic. But he is oblivious to her curiosity, and on his countenance is a wistful sadness as he gazes at a buffalo skull and dreams of hunts past. In the distance, across the Missouri, is the skyline of Great Falls with one of the large stacks of a copper smelter spewing out black smoke. Again civilization and the old west have clashed, and this sketch is not so much a study in present degradation as a paean to all of yesterday.

 

A romantic but unsubstantiated tradition persists that Russel fell in love with a beautiful chieftain’s daughter during his winter among the Bloods and seriously considered marrying her. However, Russell did come away from the Blood a “white injun” at heart, often confessed to the temptations that the old Indian ways held for him. “I remember one day we were looking at buffalo carcus,” he reminisced in a letter to his cowboys friend T.c. (Teddy Blue) Abbot in 1919, “and you said Russ I wish I was a Sioux Injun a hundred years ago and I said me to Ted thairs a pair of us.” It was Russell’s highest compliment when he suggested that another white man was also Indian beneath the skin. “If theres aney thing in re incarnation,” he wrote Frank Linderman, himself a sensitive student of Plains Indian culture, when you were here before your name was Lean Man or Long Man Its a sinch it waesnt Linderman them days you wore a clout an smoked with the sun He was your God an you asked no better death seldom caught your kind in bed an when he came it onley ment a better country with more buffalo You wer not selfish your religion said all things lived again

Though Russell regarded letter writing as “no pass time” but “ WORK ,” his characteristic prose attained eloquence when he rhapsodized about the old West and the Indians who once epitomized its spirit. “I have eaten and smoked in your camp and as our wild brothers would. I call you Friend,” he began a letter to an eminent southwestern historian: Time onley changes the out side of things, it scars the rock and snarles the tree but the heart inside is the same In your youth you loved wild things Time has taken them and given you much you dont want. Your body is here in a highley civilized land but your heart lives on the back trails that are grass grown ore plowed under If the cogs of time would slip back seventy winters you wouldent be long shedding to a brich clout and moccasens and insted of beeing holed up in a man made valley youd be trailing with a band of Navajoes headed for the buffalo range