NORTH ADAMS — Wendy Red Star’s “Apsáalooke: Children of the Large-Beaked Bird” exhibition is installed in Mass MoCA’s educational galleries — it’s in their “Kidspace,” to be clear — which feels just right, especially this week. Red Star, a member of the Apsáalooke (Crow) tribe in Montana, has made remedial education a core element of her practice — easy enough when it comes to Native American history, given the blithe, broad elisions of the ruling narrative. The Thanksgiving myth might just be the original sin of those selective tellings, a fact that gets harder to deny every year. Most public school systems nowadays acknowledge that the narrative of a friendly-neighbor feast shared between Pilgrims and their Indigenous hosts — which took place 399 years ago this very month, right down the road in Plymouth — isn’t much more than elaborate window-dressing for a brutal incursion that left Native communities ravaged by disease and violently displaced from their lands. Hard lessons, to be sure. But lessons being taught, at last, and learned.
“Apsáalooke” tells a different story from American history, one of comparably bad faith (of which there is no shortage). But for Red Star, this particular episode hits home: More than two centuries after that fabled first harvest, a delegation of Crow chiefs traveled to Washington, D.C., to negotiate territorial disputes with the encroaching homesteaders drawn west by the federal government’s promises of free land. It was 1880; western settlement was brisk and unrelenting, driven by expansionist policies fueled by Manifest Destiny, the uniquely American belief that white settlers laying claim to all the lands of the continent was God’s will.
To speed things along, the Northern Pacific Railroad was set to run through the Crows’ ancestral hunting territories. Their negotiations, like so many before and since, were hardly a negotiation at all. Of the 38 million acres the Crow claimed in the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, only 8 million remained. With settlers flooding the west on behalf of a government eager to see the Crow displaced, their lands would continue to contract. By 1904, according to a talk Red Star gave in Newark last year, government appropriations had whittled the Crow’s territory down to 2.3 million acres, where it holds steady today.
The 1880 Crow delegation traveled for weeks by wagon train, arriving in D.C. exhausted and ill. Then they found themselves pinned down in a dense and bustling city that for them may as well have been an alien planet. Among the sites toured by the delegation was the zoo, where words for animals like zebras and monkeys entered the Crow lexicon for the first time, translating as “Spotted Mule” and “Man-dog,” respectively, according to a set of Red Star’s drawings here.
The federal government liked to keep such delegations in town for long stretches, to wear down their resolve. They also liked to tour them to military installations as a tacit “or else.” Something else the Feds did, to the Crow and others, was have them sit for portraits, a gesture of dominance as surely as claiming and carving up land. Red Star has exhumed a set of photographs of the Crow delegation from the National Archives that depicts the chiefs, stoic and befeathered, in the silvery albumen of antique plate printing. Here, Peelatchiwaaxpáash, or Medicine Crow, clutches an eagle feather and is draped in ermine. There, Alaxchiiaahush, or Many War Achievements, regal and placid, has a beaded axe resting in his lap.
Captured in a 19th-century photo studio, the photos have an overpowering sense of specimen placed on a table, to be observed and cataloged. And make no mistake: That was the intention, as the government pushed a rising narrative of Native Americans as an archaic and dying race. In the pictures, there’s something spectral about them, figures lost to time in more ways than one; they’re unstuck and adrift, isolated from culture and home. It’s hard to look at them without thinking of Edward Curtis, who in the early 20th century took his portable studio to Indigenous villages with the intention of capitalizing on popular ideas about Native Americans as exotic anachronisms, unable to cope with the modern world. If you’ve ever seen his 1914 documentary “In the Land of the Head Hunters,” featuring the Kwakwaka’wakw people of coastal British Columbia — whose culture had zero to do with head hunting — you’ll know how far the sham dared to go.
For Red Star, there were clear amendments to be made. She grew up on the Crow reservation in the 1990s and her culture was flourishing, a living, contemporary thing. Where the 19th-century government photographer did everything possible to take the delegation’s chiefs out of context, Red Star loads it back in. She traces dangling ermine robes and conch shell earrings with fine lines in bright red ink; her hand limns feathers and braids, injecting color and verve. Rich and telling annotations bring the tomblike images to life.
Some of Red Star’s notes are practical, signifiers that denote rank and stature in the Crow hierarchy: Medicine Crow’s eagle feather was a symbol of leadership; the comb in Many War Achievements’s hair indicated 11 wives. More fascinating are Red Star’s projections and imaginings, reading personality and vitality into the cold and stoic faces staring back. “I can kick your ass with these eyes,” reads one of her annotations for Bia Eélisaash, or Two Belly. “I am not a fan of the white man” reads her note for another portrait, in which she highlights a particular braid in the hair of Déaxitchish, or Pretty Eagle.
There’s a wicked truth to her speculative history: These men were not amused, and who could blame them? Significantly, she infuses blunt and perfunctory observation with the richness of emotional life. The photographs tell you what these men were: dignitaries subjected to ethnographic classification. Red Star’s treatment vivifies them with who they might have truly been. Their dignity was taken from them; she takes it back.
Red Star has always used the absurd to help make her work approachable, which of course is the point. Americans have for generations shrugged off the realities of centuries of genocide, due at least partly to the unimaginable scope of atrocity. Red Star’s early work is wryly seductive, using kitsch around Native American representation as raw material for a critical view. A floor-to-ceiling image from her “The Four Seasons” series, from 2006, greets you at the exhibition’s door; it’s a picture of Red Star in full beaded Crow regalia posed in front of a postcard-worthy backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. Another piece, “Apsáalooke Feminist #2,” from 2016, pictures the artist on the couch with her daughter in a suburban-style setting overloaded with Crow motifs. It’s an amped-up declaration that Native American culture is alive and well and maybe even thriving in a cul-de-sac near you.
There are, of course, limits to how much any artist can soften so heavy a blow. Red Star has said that her “Four Seasons” series came about when, on a visit to New York’s Museum of Natural History, she passed the dinosaur display to find a series of sterile dioramas, complete with mannequins, depicting Native American life — culture under glass.
In at least one of the chief portraits, Red Star pulls no punches. A longer annotation describes Pretty Eagle’s life after death: “My remains, along with sixty other tribal members, were stolen from their burial sites along the Bighorn River by Bighorn County sanitarian Dr. W.A. Russell,” she writes alongside the chief’s jutting jawline. “My body sold to a collector for $500 and kept for 72 years at the Museum of Natural History.” Pretty Eagle finally made it home in 1994 to Bighorn Canyon, where he now rests. Photos may not lie, but they’re awfully good at telling partial truths. Red Star, in her way, completes the picture to make history whole.
WENDY RED STAR: APSÁALOOK: CHILDREN OF THE LARGE-BEAKED BIRD
At the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams. Through May 2022. www.massmoca.org, 413-664-4481