Thursday, August 16, 2012

Big Bear: not just another pretty face

Glenbow File number: NA-1010-24
Title: Big Bear, Cree.
Date: 1885
Big Bear was not known as a handsome fellow.  His biographer Hugh Dempsey notes that, "even when he was young, Big Bear was not a good-looking person, and the smallpox scars made him even homelier." (Dempsey, Big Bear, 1984, p. 18)  Our best known images of Big Bear are those surrounding the 1885 North-West Rebellion in a stage when the Cree chief, while still able to keep up with the best of them, was sixty years old.  Having seen his fair share of violence, starvation, and just plain hardy living, he admittedly looks like someone who has spent his days on the windswept and sunbeaten prairie.

The Cree chief was apparently no narcissist, and would often make fun of his appearance. An incident in the early 1880s shows that Big Bear had a good sense of humour about it all.  Walpole Roland, a photographer that wanted to take the chief's picture, was taken aback by the exorbitant demands for provisions from his prospective model.

Roland noted, "After giving him some presents, I said I could not afford so much; that he was reversing the order of things seriously, and further that I would try and find, if possible, a more repulsive-looking Indian between here and the Rockies and call him Big Bear.  At this he laughed very heartily and, wishing me good day, gave me a parting shot by adding that I would probably go beyond the Rockies to find his rival in ugliness." (Dempsey, p. 117)  Roland concluded that he had met the most stubborn chief on the prairies.  The judgement is in keeping with a leader who refused to take treaty, demanded better terms, and stalled on the selection of his reserve for many years. 

"Crow" D.F. Barry
Pictures or portraits of Big Bear in his youth are rare, if not non-existent.  One picture that is identified as the chief, appears to be a case of shoddy journalism, mistaken identity, and a pinch of colonial racism.  The original of the offending picture has been recently sold by auction, and identified as photographer D. F. Barry's "Crow". On the back of the photograph was pencilled, "Crow" - also called Pispisa Ho Waste (Good Voice Prairie Dog)". Barry travelled the American West in the 1870s and 1880s and is famous for capturing iconic pictures of the American frontier. A host of his photographs have been digitized in the Denver Public Library.  In a 1921 interview,a Lakota elder Elk was shown the photograph and described it thus:  
the man, Crow, whose picture you show me, wears those things in his hair. They are stripped feathers. He was shot by two arrows once. He pulled them both through. He did not break them off. So he can wear the quill of the eagle's feathers for each one.
Users of the internet forum American-Tribes have identified an earlier misconstruction of the Barry photo as Big Bear in The Graphic illustrated magazine.  This may be the original case of swapped identity, but could be that the Canadian Illustrated News ran these graphics first, as the McCord-Museum has them listed as the work of John Henry Walker (1831-1899), who sold his etchings to that journal.

One gets the feeling the north-west rebellion was good news in 1885, and editors were fine with running the picture of any aboriginal man who looked suitably exotic enough to impress their readers.  The portrait of "Poundmaker" on the far left has been suggested to be "Bad Soup", perhaps of the Blackfoot tribe.
Big Bear from Gowanlock's "Two Months..."
Curiously, the publication of Frog Lake "Massacre" survivor Theresa Gowanlock's memoir of her, "Two Months in the Camp of Big Bear", has a portrait of Big Bear, which appears to have been altered from the D.F. Barry cabinet portrait.  All of this misrepresentation boggles the mind. While further investigation is needed to confirm these identities, the phenomenon points to a shared American-Canadian construction of the "Indian" which hinges on the sensationalism of military reportage and a demand for images in a time when photography was in its infancy.  Historians should have picked up on the mistaken identity long ago.  "The Crow" is clearly a handsome chap!

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