Káma-Kapúska! Making Marks in Indian Country, 1833–34

A Sample Exhibition

On November 9, 1833, only one day after Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied and artist Karl Bodmer had arrived at Fort Clark, Numak'aki numakshí Mató-Tópe and other Awatíkihu leaders spent time looking at portraits     that Bodmer had completed elsewhere in the trio’s travels. Wied-Neuwied noted that Mató-Tópe recognized several of the depicted individuals. A viewing was then repeated on November 11. In addition, numerous subsequent studio visits by Awatíkihu residents and their friends involved “watching Mr. Bodmer” or admiring portraits, any of which may have offered an opportunity to see previously painted works.[1]

These viewings meant that Bodmer’s portraits performed important work among Native audiences before they ever left Indian country with the artist. To provide a peek into this work, this sample exhibition presents a small selection of eight portraits that Fort Clark guests may have seen. These eight are drawn from the surviving portraits painted by Bodmer on the journey to or at the American Fur Company (AFC) Forts Union and McKenzie, the next stops upstream from Fort Clark and possible destinations for Awatíkihu residents via AFC steamboats. Due to the movement of Native peoples among AFC posts, these eight were potentially recognizable to viewers at Fort Clark. Kiäsax, for instance, had hitched along on Bodmer and Wied-Neuwied’s trip upstream and had posed for his portrait in late June 1833.[2] A Pikuni (Piegan) man who had married into the Minitari community, Kiäsax would have been recognized     by the Fort Clark visitors in November 1833. Kiäsax in turn would have potentially recognized other sitters from Fort Union. The same was true for any other Awatíkihu leader who had traveled to Fort Union or dealt with the Fort Union Native communities for trade or hunting.

Painted at the same time was another widely known leader, Tasságä, a man who had boarded when the steamboat had stopped for a group of six Assiniboin warriors who had appeared on the bank of the Missouri.[3] Wied-Neuwied notes that “all who had been at the Yellowstone knew him,” and he joined the crew and passengers for full passage to Fort Union. The group had been hunting in the region for quite some time, and roaming hunting parties like this meant warriors of distant Native communities may have encountered each other on a semi-regular basis as food sources became more difficult to find.[4]

Once at Fort Union, Bodmer and Wied-Neuwied persuaded a variety of Native men to pose for them, although a number refused. The fort’s interpreter specifically introduced Wied-Neuwied to Noapéh (Troop of Soldiers), who posed for Bodmer on June 28, 1833.[5] Noapéh seems to have been a very popular figure at Fort Union, as the sitting was interrupted multiple times by his wife, child, and friends who came to call Noapéh away to other duties. On the center of Noapéh’s hide shirt is a large quilled rosette, whose design is specific to Assiniboin communities; the same also identifies the community of the anonymous warrior painted by Bodmer the next day.[6]

Pitätapiú, a very young Assiniboin warrior, was depicted     with a bow-lance and painted shield, items that would have told Awatíkihu viewers that the young man had both “found his god” and been elected within his óhate (society) to ka-ka (keeper) status.[7] Pitätapiú explained to Wied-Neuwied that the white package fastened to his shield served as his hó'pini (“to be holy”), and it is possible that Awatíkihu viewers would have recognized the strength and type of hó'pini that protected the young man on the battlefield.[8]

The last three portraits included here were all painted at Fort McKenzie, which Wied-Neuwied and Bodmer reached on August 9, 1833. A group of chiefs formed a rough reception party upon the steamboat’s landing, and three of them later posed for Bodmer: the Pikuni (Piegan) chiefs Nínock-Kïäiu (Bear Chief) and Mehkskéhme-Sukáhs (Red Bull), and the Kutenai chief Hómach-Ksáchkum (Kutenai Old Man).[9] The reputation of Mehkskéhme-Sukáhs as a troublemaker who was not well liked by either fort personnel or the fort’s associated Native communities had preceded the portrait making; it is possible that such reputations carried across the entire chain of AFC portages, perhaps making some Native leaders in distant locales known by deed before they were seen via portrait.

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