Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The NFR Project: Dixon-Wanamaker Expedition to Crow Agency, 1908

Home movies of genocide.

Dixon-Wanamaker Expedition to Crow Agency

Dir: Joseph K. Dixon, Roland Dixon
Scr: N/A
Phot: Joseph K. Dixon, Roland Dixon
26 mins.

After digging into the backstory behind these films, that’s the most succinct description of this material I can concoct. It’s supposed to be documentary footage of the traditional activities of Native Americans; in fact, it’s a bunch of staged footage that reflects the fantasies of the filmmakers. It seems a peculiarly American kind of schizophrenic cruelty to make a “vanishing race” vanish, then romanticize and memorialize it. The biggest benefit of this rediscovered material might be the realizations it prompts.

Rodman Wanamaker was a Philadelphia department-store tycoon. He was into Indians and in 1908 funded this, the first of three large and fanciful expeditions to the American Northwest, to document the remnants of once-proud tribes. The man responsible was minister and self-styled Indian expert Joseph K. Dixon, who used Wanamaker’s vast resources with abandon.

The expedition settled in at the town of Crow Agency, 60 miles east of Billings, and directly and ironically adjacent to the site of the Battle of Little Big Horn. Here Dixon and associates crafted their work. There is a shot from a mission school, a depiction of bronc-busting, a horse procession, and some dicey attempts at reenactment of the Big Horn battle. (The Crow, already displaced once from their traditional Ohio-area homeland, were U.S. allies during the conflict with the Sioux, their traditional enemies.)

The results are depressing. Dixon saw what he wanted to see. Russel Lawrence Barsh has written a penetrating study of the expeditions in his “An American Heart of Darkness: The 1913 Expedition for American Indian Citizenship.” He writes:

“Dixon succeeded in collecting 34,000 feet of motion-picture film and 4600 stills. In contrast with contemporaneous work done by the Bureau of American Ethnology or pioneering anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber, and George Bird Grinnell, however, Dixon's work was maudlin, romanticized, and commercial. . . The first expedition took Dixon and his camera crew to Crow Agency, Montana, in 1908 where, with the blessings of the Indian Office, they made a silent film of Longfellow's Hiawatha with Crow Indians in the leading roles. (The idea was not original: it had been done with Iroquois actors in New York a few years earlier.) Camped ‘60 miles from civilization,’ as he later described it, Dixon ‘examined 21 Indian maidens before I got a Minnehaha that would exactly fit the part,’ auditioned ‘hundreds’ of Indians for the other parts, and ‘sent four expeditions of Indians to the Big Horn Range of mountains 40 miles away to get a deer, so that when Hiawatha came to lay the deer at Minnehaha's feet he might have a real deer.’ Rodman Wanamaker was so pleased with the results that he arranged for Dixon to deliver illustrated lectures on Hiawatha 311 times in Philadelphia and New York, where he was heard by more than 400,000 people.”

Despite Dixon and Wanamaker’s desire to make a pleasing fantasy and hammer into the skulls of America’s mainstream, ugly truths crop up. The most chilling sequence is that of a line of young Native American women, in identical, “civilized” uniform dresses, being marched out of a school by a brace of nuns. They look like prisoners. They are.

The National Film Registry Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order.

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