By Mandy Smoker Broaddus
. . . Once when I stood
on a plateau of earth just at the moment before the dangerous
jutting peaks converged upon the lilting sway of grasslands, I almost
found a way back. There the sky, quite possibly all the elements,
caused the rock and soil and vegetation to congregate. Their prayer
was not new and so faint I could hardly discern. Simple remembrances,
like a tiny syncopated chorus, calling everyone home …
I dreamed of becoming snow melt,
gliding down the slope and in to the valley. With the promise,
an assurance, that there is always a way to become bird, tree, water again.
— Excerpt from Heart Butte, Montana – M.L. Smoker
Each time I visit the Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena I am struck by the complex heritage we share as Montanans. The museum’s collection is a testament to that shared history, but it also challenges us to think more deeply about how that history has played out, how it has been represented over time, and why. How have different Montanans experienced this amazing landscape we call home? Where do our stories converge? Where do they diverge? And how do the differences continue to resonate in our current lives?
Many of the artworks and artifacts in the museum’s collection were crafted and created by this region’s First Peoples long before Montana was admitted as a state in 1889. When observed closely and thoughtfully, those artifacts tell a story about how Indigenous people interacted with—and saw themselves as inseparable from—the landscape itself. This way of knowing and being is often misunderstood, romanticized beyond all recognition, or ignored entirely. The artifacts, however, have their own important stories to tell.
This was never clearer to me than the time I was given a tour deep into the museum’s archives, which are filled to the brim with objects from all eras and all corners of our state. Many of them are rarely seen by the public. As a fiftieth-generation Montanan and an Assiniboine and Sioux woman, I was drawn to the part of the collection that held the bead and quill work created by artisans and experts from my tribes. Their work was precise and exquisite. I could almost see their hands working steadily and skillfully—the hands of my ancestors. It was a powerful legacy to look upon.
Down there in the archives, this masterful work was not romanticized; it did not express nostalgia. It simply was. Even in the archival storage drawers nestled between thin protective sheets of paper, it bore witness to real people, living real lives, at a pivotal moment in the history of what we now call Montana.
When the Land Belonged to God
The museum also houses the Mackay Gallery of Charles M. Russell Art, a stop I have never missed in all my visits. I go there specifically to see When the Land Belonged to God, a breathtaking painting considered to be one of Russell’s masterpieces. It was painted in 1914 as a commission for the Montana Club, where the wealthy white men of Helena would gather to celebrate the great fortunes they had made in what were still the early years of our statehood. This is only one of its many challenges and contradictions for me.
It is clear that Russell created this piece out of a deep well of nostalgia. His longing for a time and a way of life that are irrevocably lost is there in the painting’s title, along with something like judgment or self-recrimination: Whoever this land belongs to now, it seems to say, they serve something other than God.
We have all been cast out of Eden.
Russell’s mixture of nostalgia and regret is also expressed in his composition and color choices—the way the palest blue in the upper sky gives way to a golden-yellow horizon that lies just beyond the purple-hued bluffs and distant hills. It is there in the way the golden light is mirrored in the Missouri River and in the way the lead bison is placed near the center of the painting, staring directly at the viewer, daring you to look away. It is there in the bleached bison skull and ribcage that Russell placed in the immediate foreground—a Westerner’s memento mori.
When Russell arrived in Montana in 1880, the bison on our Great Plains had already been hunted to near extinction by non-Natives. Taken mainly for their hides, they were slaughtered by the thousands, their skinned bodies left to waste on the open prairie, a desecration. Their massive, woolly heads were taken as trophies to be hung over the mantel in social clubs, government buildings, and mansions across the state.
Russell had heard the stories of the magnificent bison herds that roamed the prairies just a few decades prior to his arrival. He had heard these stories from Natives and non-Natives alike. That he chose to celebrate and commemorate their indelible presence on the land is something I have always found special, even extraordinary. Maybe he was lucky enough to hear stories about how the original inhabitants of this land, my ancestors, held deep reverence for these animals and how their presence contributed to our ways of knowing and being. As he settled in to his new home and studio in Great Falls and explored the breathtaking landscape of the area—the curvaceous Missouri, the pristine and towering buttes, and limitless sky. Maybe he had even learned of and traveled on horseback to the sacred cliffs just twenty-two miles from his home where a millennia of gallant bison hunts had taken place, a site now known as the First Peoples Buffalo Jump.
However he came to the perception, he clearly sensed that something essential had been destroyed, relentlessly devoured by greed and progress. And despite—or maybe because of—his nostalgia, he captured a part of their very essence. When I look at the painting, at those bison cresting the ridge line, crossing the river, dust clouds rising as they make their way across a land they had molded and formed with their own hooves, I like to think Russell’s painting was an attempt to restore their honor and dignity in the hearts and minds of all who would see it.
My great-grandmother, Looks Back, never had that chance. Born in 1871, she was just seven years younger than Russell. By the time he left his family and home in Saint Louis and came to Montana in search of new adventures, she had already suffered terrible losses. In 1876 she traveled with her family to the most infamous battle between Native Americans and the U.S. government. There she lost her father, Young Black Moon, who fought and died alongside his Cheyenne brother-in-law and friend, Little Whirlwind.
Surely, like all other Americans, Russell knew about the masterful victory of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors that June day. It was well publicized across the nation, although the true nature and events of the battle were misrepresented almost immediately. By the time Russell painted When the Land Belonged to God, that distorted history had long become the dominant narrative, one that would be reinforced in popular culture, in history books, and on playgrounds for generations. Not until 1991 would the site be renamed, from “Custer’s Last Stand” or the “Custer National Battlefield” to one that more accurately reflects the true nature of the event, the “Battle of the Little Big Horn.”
I have a copy of an old black and white photo of Looks Back, who was eventually required, by the assimilationist policies of the U.S. government, to change her name to Agnes Red Boy. It is difficult to determine her age in the photo—probably between fifty and sixty-five. Her dark hair is parted down the middle, with two looping braids framing either side of her round and genuine face. She is wearing a calico dress, with a light blanket with stripes draped across her shoulders. Her hands are folded on her lap. Her face is expressionless.
When I look at that photograph, I am confronted by the limits of my own understanding. What can I know about the arc of her life and the depth of feeling behind that expressionless gaze? One thing I can be certain of is that her life was filled with tremendous change and loss. By the time the photo was taken she most likely had little control over her own life and the lives of those she loved. Her people, like nearly all Indians throughout the West, had been forced onto reservations, their fates put in the hands of government officials and agents.
Looks Back would eventually marry Phillip Red Boy and come to live on the Fort Peck Reservation. Together, they would start a family and build a life. They would endure and hold on to some of the traditional ways, but this new, constrained life would not be easy for anyone. There would be many new illnesses and reckless behavior by the federal agents. Looks Back and Phillip would be forced or coerced into sending their children to boarding schools. They would face relentless pressure to assimilate from all angles. For Looks Back, this would mean giving up nearly everything she had known—her name, language, autonomy, ability to move freely across the northern plains and visit the sacred places, and her ability to sing the songs and tell the stories she had learned at the foot of her elders. The losses she endured are beyond imagining.
I have wondered, many times, what she would have said about it all as she neared the end of her life. I visit her grave every time I am home. It is in a small cemetery in a tiny community called Riverside, on the eastern edge of our reservation. My mother, grandmother, and so many other relatives are also buried there. It is a special place, sitting on an elevated piece of land, with the Missouri River—the same river in Russell’s painting—visible in the distance, winding just a mile to the south. It is land I feel connected to in my bones. When I look out to the horizon, past the worn wheat fields and gray, muddy riverbank, I wonder if Looks Back ever stood at the same vantage point and wondered at her life’s journey.
Breaking Camp, another painting by Russell, is a depiction of a Native woman on horseback, a young child safe in its papoose on her back, and a travois with their family belongings being pulled behind. Their group is on the move, and the woman appears to be looking out, beyond the horizon.
Painted in 1897, the work provides a window into the sense of nostalgia Russell had already developed for the early inhabitants of this land. We know, by the numerous drawings, paintings, and sculptures he left behind, that he found inspiration in our ways of life and traditions. Whether that inspiration came from a place of true affinity and appreciation or reflected a broader nostalgia for an idealized past is hard to say. It is a question worth asking, but when I look at a work like Breaking Camp, I find my thoughts going somewhere closer to home. While such scenes depict a past that Russell could only imagine, for Looks Back they would have had the deep resonance of lived experience. The feeling of being on her mother’s back, in a papoose, with the rhythm of the horse’s movement beneath them, would have been as deeply ingrained in her memory as the sound of her mother’s voice and the way the prairie smelled after a rainstorm.
Whatever Russell’s motivations for depicting Native people in his art, he was clearly compelled to help their cause. Alongside his friend, federal judge and U.S. Representative Charles N. Pray, he worked toward the establishment of a reservation for the Chippewa Cree Tribe in central Montana. The Rocky Boy Reservation was ultimately established in 1916. In a letter to Pray, Russell included a drawing accompanied by a few simple but compelling words:
This is the only real American.
He fought and died for his country.
Today, he has no vote, no country, and is not a citizen.
But history will not forget him.
Space and Movement
History—the telling of our pasts—is always a problematic construct, whether it is conveyed in scholarly works or in the arts. Russell probably saw himself and his art as preserving a part of that past. By capturing the people, their clothing, their tools, and the landscape upon which they lived, he was ensuring that the intricacies and details of their lives would be safeguarded. At the same time Russell was creating this work, however, Looks Back and other Native people were fighting the real, daily battle to retain the traditions and cultures he depicted. So much had been lost, stolen, or damaged beyond repair. It is a devastating list.
One of those things—ironically, in direct opposition to the creation of reservations like Rocky Boy—was the ability to move freely across ancestral lands. It must have been a strange and startling reality for Looks Back and so many others to realize that their traditional ways of hunting and gathering were suddenly forbidden. These methods had been developed across thousands of years, resulting in thoughtful and sustainable patterns of movement that were deeply attuned to the natural world. Her people had been following these patterns since time immemorial. Almost overnight, they were simply no longer allowed by the U.S. government. Failure to abide by these new rules would mean ruin and death.
I have been to the Charles M. Russell Museum a handful of times in my life, first at eleven or twelve years old with my father, a serious study of all local museums in Montana. As a child, I enjoyed seeing the writing retreat, touring the grounds, and walking the serene halls and rooms that hold the collection. When I look at Charlie Russell’s work and read about his life, I inevitably think about my great-grandmother’s life. What I find most striking about this comparison is the difference in space and movement—how differently they experienced Montana as a physical place at a specific time in its history. As a child this landscape had been Looks Back’s playground and classroom. For Native people, the land was akin to a relative, and that relationship was sacred and preserved. The ability to move, to engage in battle, to hunt, to collect necessary foods and medicine was paramount. In sharp contrast, the U.S. government’s actions at the end of her life afforded her little to no movement, no changing landscapes, no way of living in harmony with the changing seasons.
For Russell, the landscape was a blank canvas. It was his to capture, to define. He could move about freely in Montana and across the nation. He would be celebrated from New York to California. He would build a cabin on Lake MacDonald and entertain friends and loved ones from near and far. In his new homeland, he built a new life, undertook business ventures, and created art that would be recognized around the world: art that would become synonymous with Native American heritage, the Great Plains, and the American West. His work memorialized the past while the reality of my great-grandmother’s life was so starkly different, just a few hours from Russell to the east. He could have visited her. He could have seen the loss with his own eyes.
This a part of my family’s legacy and of so many others. To have been so sure of your place in this world, to live with cohesion and connection with all of one’s surroundings for millennia, and then to have so much stripped away. To have others, from the outside, move into your territory and take over. To take and take. To tell our stories, our histories, and even to paint or draw our likenesses. To strip us of our agency—the ability to travel and move and live our lives on the land.
And yet Looks Back did not give up. She endured. She remembered her childhood and her ancestors. She cared for her family and community in this new life. And I am certain she always knew who she was and where she truly came from. It is my greatest honor to call her my great-grandmother. Her legacy reminds us that we are survivors, and that, because of her perseverance, I, her great-granddaughter, can now write and reclaim a part of our history, our story, our lives.
Meditations at Tabexa Wakpa (Frog Creek) – M.L. Smoker
We have taken the long highway home again. The grass is tall,
cobwebs and the husks of yellow jackets ornament the basement.
While we were away our neighbor and friend who always invited us over
for salmon and potatoes died in his sleep on the couch.
Two healthy babies have been born, twins and nephews.
Someone broke in through a window downstairs –
took three televisions, two star quilts, a Pendleton shawl, the chainsaw
and one large bottle of laundry detergent.
They smoked cigarettes on the couch and drank pop from the fridge.
The way the horizon bends itself around
our lives here might make us think
we are exceptional. Walking the giant plain,
wind-drenched, we found the fox kits
we had been watching the previous summer.
Small bodies at the bottom of the open well.
Probably at play, lost their bearings,
and still too young to know any better.
Almost as ghosts, we come and go from this place, not at all
like the known spirits who reside here, some at tranquil rest, others –
one man who died who died here fifty years ago poisoned his young wife
and raised their newborn son in a neglectful and angry home.
The boy grew up neglected and angry and killed his father.
Oh, the sum of these moments and our own, atoms and particles in constant motion.
Peel back their stratum, hang them on the clothesline in the breeze.
Let their shadow shapes build nests finally out in the open.