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On "Scalp Dance by Spokane Indians"


Benjamin Branham

The Canadian artist Paul Kane, 1810-1871, whose oeuvre consists largely of sketches and paintings depicting landscapes and scenes of Indian life in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, plays a central role in Alexie's "Scalp Dance by Spokane Indians," named after Kane's painting of the same title. Much like Wendy Rose's "Truganinny," the poem begins with a quoted epigraph and subsequently takes on the voice of the woman portrayed in Kane's painting. The epigraph, taken from The Spokane Indians: Children of the Sun of "The Civilization of the American Indian Series," describes Kane's visit and the composition of his painting: "Its central figure, a woman who had lost her husband to the Blackfeet, whirled around a fire swashing and kicking in revenge a Blackfoot scalp on a stick. Behind her, eight painted women danced and chanted, as did the rest of the tribe to the beat of the drums."

Kane's contribution to and perpetuation of representational mythology finds an opponent in the voice of the depicted widow:

Always trying to steal a little bit of soul, you know? Whether it be poetry or oils on canvas. They call themselves artists but they are really archeologists.

Really, that's all any kind of art is.

And who am I, you ask? I'm the woman in the painting. I'm the one dancing with the Blackfoot scalp on a stick. But I must tell you the truth. I never had a husband. The artist, Paul Kane, painted me from memory. He saw me at Fort Spokane, even touched his hand to my face as if I were some caged and tame animal in a zoo.

The comparison of art with archeology parallels an observation by Vine Deloria, who in God is Red narrated a 1971 confrontation between AIM activists and archeologists at a dig in Minnesota. The archeologists upheld the myth that "the only real Indians were dead ones" (quoted by McGuire 63). Archeology necessarily paralyzes culture by embalming it, and its task ties inextricably with the imperative of museums. "The archaeologists were clearly surprised that the activists objected to what
they were doing and that Indian people thought of archaeology as a form of oppression. The archaeologists saw themselves as the preservers of a dead Indian culture, while the activists, through their protest, sought to establish that their culture and their pasts lived on" (McGuire 63).

The speaker of the poem, like an encased artifact or a "preserved" culture, lacks a voice until Alexie endows her with one. In the painting, Kane usurps her identity to suit the configuration of his own vision, a vision that Heather Dawkins argues contains "an instance of imperialist discourse" (Dawkins 25).

The very objective of Kane's work extends from the imperialist practice of surveillance and containment. In the preface to the diary he published, Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America, Kane assumes his cultural authority: "The principal object in my undertaking was to sketch pictures of the principal chiefs, and their original costumes, to illustrate their manners and customs, and to represent the scenery of an almost unknown country" (Kane, liii). Kane stops short of divulging to whom the country remains "unknown" and his purpose in attempting to depict it. Kane's nostalgia for a subject "in which I felt a deep interest in my boyhood," having "been accustomed to see hundreds of Indians about my native village" (lii), evokes what I.S. MacLaren dubs "an almost Wordsworthian fervour for retrieving an innocent past" (MacLaren 1987, 180). If this tendency toward exoticizing comes from Kane's preconceived ideas of Indians, it undergoes further development as he choreographs the scenes he sketches. In Wanderings, he reports the reluctance he encounters when searching for a model that fits his conventions:

"I wanted to sketch one of the females, but she refused, as she could not dress herself suitably for such an occasion, being in mourning for some friends she had lost, and therefore only wearing her oldest and dirtiest clothes.

After some difficulty, I succeeded in getting a young girl to sit in the costume of the tribe, although her mother was very much afraid it might shorten her life. But on my assuring her that it was more likely to prolong it, she seemed quite satisfied." (69)

This interventionist tactic resounds with fraudulent representation. How can Kane paint the customs and landscapes of an unknown country if he merely imposes his own narrow knowledge upon the canvas? If Kane aims to provide an ethnographic account of Native Americans through painting, then he seriously compromises and corrupts his intention by explicitly staging his portraits. The voice from Alexie's poem echoes this confinement as the woman protests her culture's imprisonment within the disciplined classification of Kane's gaze: 

You must also understand that we treated Paul Kane well even as he conspired to steal. Some sat still for his portraits and didn't smile because Kane insisted they remain stoic. That was his greatest mistake. Our smiles were everything; our laughter created portraits in the air, more colorful and exact than any in Kane's work.

I have seen all his paintings and Kane never let us smile.

Here, Alexie illustrates not only the perpetuation of myth but the ideological enforcement of it as well. By refusing to allow his subjects to dress, pose, or gesture in ways that fail to accord with his perspective, Kane creates paintings that register a racist agenda. "They did non merely repeat already-held racist beliefs-they produced an imperialist discourse" (Dawkins 27).  More evidence suggesting the inauthenticity of Kane's enterprise comes from accounts that highlight significant discrepancies between the initial sketches drawn in the field and the subsequent oil paintings completed in the studio. MacLaren examines the significant revision that occurs within Kane's studio, implying his potential influence by the "corporate conditioning or artistic representations of the West" (1987, 181). Davis and Thacker compare some specific examples in which they discuss Kane's drastic style change. In looking at the two versions of a piece translated as "The Man that Gives the War Paint," they supply an intriguing analysis:

"In a manner typical of Kane's field sketches, the watercolor study clearly concentrates on the subject's bold, strong face, adding only the merest suggestion of a bare torso and ornamented wolf skin thrown over his left shoulder. . The canvas, in contrast, is a polished amalgamation of the portrait study and some additional props, in particular a fine eagle-head pipe-stem and decorated jacket. Between the preliminary and the final stages, therefore, quite considerable changes have been made not only in presentation but in general effect. The subject is no longer a rough, determined warrior but a groomed and contemplative chief." (Davis & Thacker 14)

Davis and Thacker propose that such changes result in part from the Kane's awareness of the "sensitivities of his white audience and knowing their Victorian preference for a unusual, embellished clothing on a 'noble' bearer, rather than the crude reality of quotidian 'savage' life" (14). Indeed, the painting "Scalp Dance with Spokane Indians" most likely derived from Kane's sketch of a Chaulpay scalp dance, indicating a casual blending of tribal customs and a misrepresentation on a much broader scale (Harper 226-27, 294). Dawkins additionally observes that some of Kane's paintings stem from the conflation of two or more sketches (27), a tactic that conveys a serious indifference for cultural accuracy. Kane's pronounced repulsion with his subjects, from his disgust with their "barbarous language [and] the horrible, harsh, spluttering sounds which proceed from their throats" (Kane 125), to his contempt for their lifestyle--"they are probably the laziest race of people in all the world" (147)--reveals an utter lack of the sensitivity required for any interaction with, let alone representation of, a given culture. With this established, we might agree with Dawkins' conclusion that Kane's work "is not a sketch of life as it really was, a document of Indians in their original state, but neither is it simply the perception of Indians through European filters. Kane's gaze, of observation and of knowledge, his sketches, paintings, and writings are deeply implicated in, and constitutive, of power" (27).

By invoking Kane and supplanting his voice with that of his hitherto silenced subject, Alexie redistributes power. Like Truganinny, the speaker here asserts her importance. But rather than concede the fragility of her voice, she sustains it with self-ascribed authority. "When Paul Kane touched me I struck him down and only the hurried negotiations of a passing missionary saved me from Kane's anger. But far from that, I am also a healer, a woman who reserves her touch for larger things." Though she depends on the "passing missionary"--another outsider-to "save" her from injustice, she takes refuge in her autonomy. She faces "the loss of soul" upon discovering herself upon Kane's canvas, and in another parallel with Truganinny experiences the void of excavation: "Ever since Paul Kane had touched me that day, I had felt something missing: a tooth, a fingernail, a layer of skin." As a veritable curator of or visitor to a museum, Paul Kane has absorbed the life of another into his own life, usurping it from its rightful owner. By placing the speaker on his canvas, he has stolen a part of her and paralyzed it within the confines of a gaudy frame; she retains only the inert absence of an amputated limb. But whereas Truganinny awaits death, Alexie's speaker stands resilient, recalibrating the view of her audience: "When you see me now in that painting, dancing with the scalp, you must realize that I didn't have a husband, that I never danced without a smile, that I never sat still for Kane." A direct appeal to our perception re-articulates power and knowledge and redraws the boundaries of "observation, classification, investigation and surveillance" (Dawkins 27) that comprise an imperialist discourse. And though Alexie's poem does not mend a fractured history, it retrieves the apparatus of self-representation and an ability to declare: "That is the truth. All of it."

Copyright 2001 by Benjamin Branham


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