The Insistence of a Crow Archivist: Wendy Red Star
by Tanya Lukin Linklater
Wendy Red Star and I have only met once in real life.
I came to know Wendy Red Star initially through her social media presence. Her Instagram feed is a collection of historical photographs of Crow life, documentation of her process with materials from Crow and powwow culture (elk teeth, Pendleton blankets, family beadwork), #forestbath walks she takes with her small dog Jasper in Oregon backcountry, documentation of her dresses, prints and photographs in museums and performances sometimes accompanied by her daughter, Beatrice. Red Star’s hashtag, #apsalookefeminist, is striking in its direct connection between her feminism and tribal specificity.
Even before we met, she mailed me an “Indian muscle man” trucker hat with a beaded rim to northern Ontario. It was one of many hats that Red Star beaded and mailed to contemporary Indigenous artists in Canada and the US. She later drove from Oregon to Vancouver to see a collaborative performance I developed for “Reading the Line,” curated by Pablo de Ocampo at Western Front in 2015. In Vancouver, she placed dentalium shell and blue square beads in my hand; earrings she constructed. I recognized this action and reciprocated by gifting her a pair of porcupine quill and delica beaded earrings, made by Inuit artist Caroline Blechert from Northwest Territories. Our conversations in Vancouver centered on Indigenous contemporary art, feminism, performance, and motherhood, and grew ground underneath us.
During a recent Skype conversation, we speak about how the distance from our home communities allows us to bring an inquisitive criticality to our respective material cultures. Red Star lives and works in Oregon, and the Crow reservation is located in Montana. We move through moments of nostalgia and yearning and discuss the continual return to research-driven practices.
Red Star jokes that she is “Crow-centric” and “horse-obsessed.” She tells me that historically the Crow dressed their horses in the same beadwork as their riders, creating visually stunning images across the Plains as they rode. The clothing and accessories were placed in specific ways and for specific reasons.
Her enthusiasm for the specificity of contemporary Crow material culture turns our conversation to Crows keeping the square paper “Pendleton” tags on blankets that they parade with at Crow Fair. She pulls a grey Pendleton blanket into the frame of her webcam to show the tag, and I tease her for having the blanket on hand and within reach of the frame. We pause to reflect on the largesse and spectacle of many contemporary artists today, and she tells me that she laments not having the means to purchase hundreds of Pendletons with which to construct work. We meander back to a photograph she describes as having been taken in 1912 of a Crow girl with a blanket, Pendleton tag clearly shown in the frame.
Today, when Pendleton blankets are used for parading at Crow Fair, parading is their only purpose; the blankets no longer function as blankets. This tension between material culture and cultural practice— the relationships between objects and meaning and the body— are present in Red Star’s photographic, print-making, performative, and sculptural projects. The tension arises in the absence of the body in the garments she constructs of traditional Crow elk teeth dresses as well as futuristic powwow regalia. She installs them in museums and galleries, often in relation to Native American collections and sometimes juxtaposed with documentary YouTube videos of Crow Fair for the past 40 years.
“Circling the Camp” (2014) is a project that began when Red Star found her father’s slides from the 1970s: his personal archive of Crow Fair and her family’s activities on the Crow reservation. There were over 100 slides in her father’s collection. She initially scanned and projected each slide in a darkroom and viewed them over the course of a few years. She thought about her father’s perspective in each photograph and what he was trying to capture, but was unsure how to use the slides until she began to think about the project as a collaboration with her father.
Red Star saw her role in this collaboration as that of editor of the image; isolating her father’s perspective or what she perceived to be his point of view. She erased the background to draw attention to: a procession of adorned horses and riders; a station wagon’s bounty of beadwork and blankets with a single woman atop; a group of Crows standing in regalia. Red Star narrowed the image to what she perceived that her father or family found significant or meaningful.
Red Star considers herself a Crow archivist. An archive is an accumulation of preserved historical records or documents. Perhaps Red Star’s role is more than one who merely accumulates a collection. She translates the archive by re-focusing the eye of the viewer, erasing the land, figures and background of the image. In this way she limits our gaze and choice as viewers; perhaps our agency as viewers is diminished.
In this erasure and re-focusing of the image, I wonder, what is left out? Is this erasure partly asking us to consider who is allowed to see? Perhaps as viewers we should consider our desire to consume the totality of the image and reflect on the agency of the artist to withhold.
In the second half of “Circling the Camp” we see documentation of her father, a game warden at the time, participating in bison hunts on the Crow reservation. He is pictured processing animals near some trucks with scrub brush and foothills in the background. We see a moment of her grandmother’s unparalleled skill with a knife, in relation to a hanging deer carcass.
In contrast to those of the parade, these images are not brought into focus against a sharp white background but are partly obscured. Red Star’s erasure of parts of her father’s images points to the ways in which we remember and the gaps in our memory. Perhaps in this erasure is found the residue of Red Star herself and her desire to understand what her family knew in the 1970s, before she was born. She further investigates the archive in “Family Portraits” (2011) a selection of family photographs taken by her aunt that have been printed on fabric and sewn into memory or star quilts.
The repeated, patterned images include Red Star’s father’s band, The Maniacs, and in another quilt he stands with his two prom dates. By sewing these images into star quilts, Red Star recalls the function of the quilts, which are often gifted in ceremony or are sewn for family with the intent of being handed down.
Given this context, I wonder about Red Star’s intended audience for the work as well as the centrality of relationships and feeling of intimacy found within it. “Circling the Camp” and “Family Portraits” allude to how the archive functions in relation to practice with an emphasis on the fragility of memory, as we yearn to know what our relatives knew.
Tanya Lukin Linklater is an artist whose practice spans experimental choreography, performance, video, and text. She has exhibited at Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art + Images Festival (Toronto), SBC Gallery (Montreal), efa project space (New York City), Western Front (Vancouver), Remai Modern (Saskatoon), and elsewhere. Her poems and essays have been published in C Magazine, Yellow Medicine Review, Taos International Journal of Poetry and Art, Drunken Boat, and McLaren Art Centre. She recently began her graduate work in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University.
This article was originally featured in BlackFlash Issue 33.2.