Authors: Margaret Coel
A CHILL HAD
settled over the evening, and moonlight shimmered in the frost that covered the grounds of St. Francis Mission on the Wind River Reservation. The moon was almost full, bright and low in the metallic sky pressing down over the earth. Most of the buildings around Circle Driveâthe small, white church with the steeple gleaming in the moonlight, the yellow stucco administration building, the two-story, red-brick residenceâmerged into the shadows of the cottonwoods that sheltered the grounds. But light glowed in the oblong windows of the two-story, gray stone building that had once been the mission school but was now the Arapaho Museum.
Father John Aloysius O'Malley, the Jesuit pastor of the mission, zipped up his jacket and plunged across the grounds. He was a tall man, almost six-feet-four inches, and at forty-eight still retained the look of the athlete he'd been when he pitched for Boston College. He'd inherited the red hair, blue eyes, and quick smile that ran through his Irish family, and despite the freckles on his face and the laugh lines
at the corners of his eyes, he had the strong featuresâhigh, intelligent forehead and solid chinâof a handsome man, although he'd never thought of himself as handsome. Even though he spent a few minutes looking at himself in the mirror every morning when he shaved, it had been years since he'd actually seen himself.
He dipped his face into the collar of his jacket against the icy air that reminded him of Boston and home, a long way from the reservation that had been home for the past eight years. It could be a hard winter, he thought, the first frost coming so early, casting a silvery sheen over the brush and shrubs that had turned golden red with autumn. It was the second Monday in October, the Moon of Falling Leaves, according to the Arapaho way of marking the passing time.
The meeting in Eagle Hall behind the administration building had ended twenty minutes ago, but he'd stayed on until the members of the planning committee had shrugged into bulky jackets and, one by one, filed out into the pale gray light of evening, coaxed a line of old pickups and sedans into life, and bumped around Circle Drive toward Seventeen-Mile Road. By then, Father Damien Henley, the new assistant priest, had already left.
Past the museum windows, Father John could see the blurred figures moving about in the gallery. Normal closing time was eight o'clock, but the Edward S. Curtis exhibit on the Plains Indians that opened two weeks ago had brought in a steady stream of visitors who seemed to lose themselves in the century-old photographs of Arapahos, Cheyennes, Piegan, Crow, and Sioux. He veered left, taking a shortcut through the frost-stiffened wild grasses in the center of the mission. Christine Nelson, the new curator, might need help closing up tonight.
He bounded up the steps to the porch that extended across the front of the stone building. The floorboards creaked under his boots. The moment he let himself through the oversized wooden door, he heard the voices buzzing like an electric current from the gallery on the left. He glanced through the doorway of what had once been
a classroom. A group of Arapahosâstudents, he guessed, by the notebooks clutched in their hands and the earnest way they bent their heads in discussionâclustered around a middle-aged white man who looked like a professor, with tortoise-shell glasses and a mass of gray, curly hair that dipped over his forehead like a fur cap and, in back, was caught in a pony tail. One of the girls looked familiarâthe shiny, black hair that hung down her back, the narrow, pretty face with prominent cheekbones. And it had been a while since he'd seen Hiram Blue Feather and Roy Glick. Three years ago, they'd been skinny kids playing for the Eagles, the baseball team he'd started his first summer at St. Francis. With Hiram on the pitcher's mound and Roy behind the plate, the Eagles had brought home the district championship.
Arranged along the walls were the black-and-white Curtis photographs that glowed with tones of pink and gold under the overhead fluorescent lights. Large portraits of elders and grandmothers with weary eyes and wrinkled faces; women holding young children and staring out across the plains; men in breechcloths, eagle-feathers poking from headbands, lined up like schoolboys in front of a small building. In one photograph, a woman walked out of the trees carrying a load of kindling wood, unaware of the camera that had stopped the moment in time. None of the photographs were originals from the portfolios that Curtis had produced almost a hundred years ago, Christine had explained. But they were excellent copies made from the original copper plates.
A couple of the students had wandered over to the far wall where the nine photographs that Curtis had taken of Arapahos were displayed. Fewer images than the photographer had made of other plains tribes, as if he hadn't spent much time on the reservation. And the photographs were smaller than the large photogravure images that Curtis had selected for his portfolios, no more than seven by nine inches. Still they were beautiful. A youth in a feathered headdress and long, bone necklace that looked too heavy for his thin chest. A young woman with the innocence of a girl still about her, in a heavy robe
that shimmered like black velvet, looking away from the camera, as if she were looking into the future. An elder with gray hair parted in the middle and lines burrowed into his brow, and another elder in a plaid shirt and black trousers, seated on the ground, legs folded, smoking a long pipe. A haunting image of a woman seated on the ground in front of a tipi, cradling a child in her lap, sunshine beginning to fall over them, as if they were about to emerge from the shadow.
Set apart from the group of Arapaho photographs was a photograph of the log cabin at Black Mountain where Curtis had stayed while he was working on the reservation. On one side of the cabin stood a conical-shaped tent, like a tipi, where Curtis took photographs of individuals, Christine said. The photographer could adjust the flap to create the exact amount of light and shadows that he wanted to play over the faces. Next to the photographic tent was the small, boxlike tent where Curtis developed the glass plate negatives.
Standing a short distance from the tents, one elbow propped against the railing that ran around the porch at the front of the cabin, was a fine-looking Arapaho dressed in a white shirt and light, canvas trousers, probably in his twenties, Father John guessed, with black hair cut short and a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. Next to the photograph was the small plaque with the title, “Home and Studio at Wind River. My assistant Jesse White Owl.”
But it was the photograph in the center of the wall that drew Father John's attention each time he came to the museum. Three warriors riding down a mountainside, rifles and feathered headdresses silhouetted against the clear, open sky. A small village below, canvas tipis shining in the sunlight. A normal day, people in the village going about their chores. Women cooking and scraping hides; men standing about, visiting with one another. One man was having his hair combed by a woman who bent over him, her back curved in gentleness. Another man was cleaning his rifle. The photograph was titled, “Before the Attack.”
The group of students had clustered in front of the photograph, everyone talking at once, voices low and intense, the gray pony tail
nodding, encouraging. The girl with shiny black hair reached out and swept her hand across the image of the warriors, as if she might wipe them out of the picture and protect the village.
“We can all agree that the photograph is powerful.” The woman's voice behind him was tight with exasperation.
Father John looked around. Christine Nelson stood outside the office on the other side of the entry, arms folded across the front of her navy-blue turtleneck sweater. She was small and fine-boned, probably in her late thirties, and attractive in a brittle kind of way. She had dark, straight-cut hair that hung to her shoulders and framed a pale, oval face whose most distinguishing features were the light, watchful eyes and the red-tinged lips drawn into a tight line. She had on slacks that matched her sweater and diamond earrings that flickered through her hair when she moved her head.
Six weeks ago, after the former curator left for a position in Cheyenne, he'd placed ads in newspapers across Wyoming: Curator, Arapaho Museum, St. Francis Mission. Anyone could read between the lines: low-paying job on Indian reservation. Christine Nelson had been the only applicant, and he could hardly believe his good luck. The woman was eminently qualified: Two years at the Field Museum in Chicago, internships at the Louvre in Paris and the Museo Nacional de AnthropologÃa in Mexico City.
“I'm ready for a change,” she'd announced. A low-pressure position in an out-of-the-way place was exactly what she'd been looking for. He'd hired her on the spot, and not long after, he'd started to feel as if he'd conjured up a whirlwind. The woman arrived at the museum early and left late, always running, running. He'd seen her cream-colored Range Rover parked in front of the museum in the evenings and on weekends. It was as if the old stone building couldn't contain the energy in the small figure. Within two weeks, she'd arranged for a gallery in Denver to loan the Curtis photographs for a special exhibit.
“Maybe you can get them to stop yammering, agree that the photographs are magnificent, and get out of here,” she said as he walked
toward her. “They can argue all they want in class. I was about to throw them out. Care to do the honors?” She pulled back the cuff of her sweater and glanced at a gold-banded watch. “I have an appointment in twenty minutes.”
“I'll be glad to close up,” Father John said.
“In that case, I'll be on my way.” The woman checked her watch again, then swung into the office and plucked a briefcase from the desk. After grabbing a coat from somewhere behind the door, she emerged into the entry, grasping the coat and briefcase against her chest. “They're all yours,” she said, throwing a look of irritation toward the gallery before she let herself outside. A gust of cold air blew through the entry as the door whooshed shut.
Father John turned back to the gallery. Hiram was beckoning him forward. “Settle a debate for us. What do you say?” The young man lifted one hand toward the village. “You think Curtis staged the photograph? Created his own little village? Enacted the attack?”
“Like he was directing a movie in nineteen-o-seven.” This from the girl with long, shiny hair.
Father John started toward the students, aware of the thud of his boots on the old wood floor and the eyes fastened on him. For a moment, he felt like the American history teacher he'd once been in a Jesuit prep school, student eyes following him as he paced the front of the class, searching for the logical answer to a question, the answer that seemed to make the most sense out of the past.
He stopped next to Hiram and studied the photo. “The Indian battles were over and the villages were gone by the late 1890s, when Curtis began taking photographs,” he said. “Curtis wanted to document Indian traditions, so he created scenes that he thought depicted traditional life.”
“A legitimate documentary technique.” The man with the gray pony tail looked from one student to the other, then turned to Father John and thrust out a mitt-sized hand with a grip of steel. “Don
Cannon, Father. I teach the film class at Central Wyoming College.” He shifted his gaze to the students clustered in front of the photograph. “True, Curtis paid Indians to stage scenes, such as mock battles. After all, he worked in the pictorial style popular at the time. But let's not lose sight of the man's artistry. Keep in mind that he used a Premo camera. Very advanced technology then, with its reversible back capable of either horizontal or vertical shots. Exposure time was as fast as one-one-hundredth of a second, so he could shoot pictures as fast as his assistant could hand him new plates to load into the camera. Still primitive technology by our standards. Nevertheless, Curtis managed to get images with so much clarity and detail that the scenes might be taking place before our eyes, which gives them a power that's almost magical,” he said. “When we look at them, it's as if we are transported into the past.”
“I don't call it a legitimate technique,” the girl said.
“How else could Curtis have photographed an enemy attack?” Hiram locked eyes with Roy, and both young men nodded.
The girl's chin jutted forward. “Curtis could have admitted that he staged the scenes. Like rolling the credits at the end of a film. Then we'd know what we're seeing. But he presents the photograph as if enemy warriors were about to attack an actual village.”
“What do the rest of you think about Miriam's point?” Cannon asked.
Ah, Miriam Redshield, Father John thought. Eunice Redshield's granddaughter. The small girl with black braidsâhow long ago?âsquirming in the front pew next to her grandmother at the ten o'clock Sunday Mass.
The others were shaking their heads in unison, like soldiers in a drill. “Hiram's right,” Roy said. “Curtis recreated the scene, like a documentary. He wanted us to experience what it was like in the village before enemy warriors attacked and people died.”
“But that's not what happened.” Miriam's face tightened, and for
a moment, Father John thought she might burst into tears. “It was the warriors who died.”
She had everyone's attention now.
“Obviously, some of the enemy would die in an attack,” Cannon said.
“All of them died.” Miriam lifted her chin and stared at the warriors riding down slope, zigzags of paint crossing their faces and naked chests like streaks of lightning. She seemed transfixed, as if the photograph had yielded some meaning to her that had eluded everyone else.