John Davy, Collaborative Doctoral Student, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, British Museum
With the generous assistance of art brokers C S Redlick, the British Museum has recently been able to acquire the painting Event II by the Siksika Blackfoot artist Adrian A Stimson. The Blackfoot are a Native American tribe whose home is on the plains of historic Saskatchewan, now Saskatchewan and Alberta in Canada, and Montana in the United States. They have a long history of subsistence on the land, and Stimson – also known by the pseudonym ‘Buffalo Boy’ – produces artworks which engage with conceptions of what it means to be Native in the modern world.
Event II depicts two American bison, commonly known as buffalo, a mother and calf, playing in deep snow. The cow rolls in the snow as the calf leaps excitedly beside her. In the background the featureless while plains stretch for miles underneath a wide expanse of sky studded with dark clouds. It is a timeless natural scene, broken by one small feature: in the far distance, on the horizon, a tiny nodding-donkey pumpjack beats away, draining oil from far below.
The painting is part of a series of artworks Stimson has produced which illustrate the effects of mineral exploitation on traditional Native landscapes, each depicting buffalo on snowy plains against a backdrop of pipelines and factories. Mineral extraction has become a major issue for the Blackfoot in recent years, as mining companies have increasingly sought to gain access to mineral deposits on historic tribal lands. Although there is substantial wealth to be made, the potential damage to the environment and upheaval in the traditional way of life are significant concerns, reflected in these paintings in which the buffalo stand for the Blackfoot peoples.
The British Museum is particularly pleased to be able to purchase this artwork as the Museum already contains important historical collections from the Blackfoot peoples, most notably the Deane-Freeman collection. At the turn of the twentieth century Maude Deane-Freeman, wife of ration distributer Frederick, lived among the Kainai Blackfoot, on what was then known as the Blood Reservation of Alberta. At this time, the Kainai were under pressure from the Canadian government to abandon traditional religious and social beliefs. Many people, faced with the threat of starvation, disposed of the regalia used in Blackfoot ceremonial life. Rather than see this beautiful material destroyed by the reservation agents, Maude purchased it from its original owners, building a substantial collection. She wrote that:
‘They are giving up the old life and customs, and trying to earn their living by toil like the white man, consequently the things that belong to their old life and religion are getting very scarce. As the old people die their belongings are buried with them and the younger generation seem to have lost their desire of making them, particularly as every obstacle is put in the way of their holding their religious dances.’
When Maude’s collection was discovered by her husband’s superiors, Frederick was summarily dismissed from his post and the couple moved to Toronto, where Frederick died soon afterwards. There, Maude’s collection was recognised by Governor-General of Canada Lord Minto as of great importance, and he arranged for it to be purchased by the government in 1903, dividing the collection between Victoria College in Toronto and the British Museum. A century later, the collection was reunited for an exhibition at Lethbridge, close to the Kainai Reservation, where the visitor interpretation and labels were provided by the families whose ancestors had once owned the material. This information continues to inform the presentation of the collection in the Native North American gallery at the British Museum.
Adrian Stimson’s provocative painting joins a growing body of modern Native American artwork which can be exhibited alongside and in direct dialogue with the existing historic collections of Native American artefacts at the British Museum, illustrating both the continuity of tradition and the modern environmental, political and social concerns of America’s First Peoples.