The MHA Buffalo Project

The MHA Buffalo Project is about the mechanisms of cultural continuity, the role of creatures in symbolising and maintaining it –  and how culture is sometimes manipulated in the pursuit of illicit gain.

It’s a working title for a piece that has been over decade in the making. ‘MHA’ stands for Mandan Hidatsa Arikara; the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, North Dakota. I first went here in 2009.

My bison, whilst perhaps not every or the bison, is certainly many different ones. It is a construct that draws on experience that I’ve begun to lay out in the narrative below; which, whilst centred on the ‘Heart Of The World’ and the Great Plains of North America, strikes me as being a powerful amplification of the strengths and foibles that are universal components within the human condition.

A composite being, it is formed from iconic nineteenth century European American depictions of bison and Mandan buffalo dancers by George Catlin and Karl Bodmer and an original buffalo dancer’s mask which I was able to view in the store of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. The British Museum holds in its collection a rather ghostly Victorian photograph of the very same object.

I found the dancer’s mask somewhat eerie, lying ‘in state’ in its nondescript archive box. It should really be back at Fort Berthold in the Three Tribes Museum – but it’s probably laced with arsenic and other preservatives such as might make this difficult. (It should be noted however that the Smithsonian does really terrific work with Native communities in making their ancestry accessible. I’m not sure that we on this side of The Pond have been as effective, though efforts have been made in some quarters. I imagine our museums would protest this – but I personally found the Smithsonian far more immediately willing to open the doors to its unseen holdings than is the case here. A matter of resources perhaps).

My beast also refers to the fracking trucks that stalked every corner of the landscape when I returned to Fort Berthold in 2013 –  most often found in gear-grinding, servo-hissing ’herds’ that engulf you as you attempt to navigate the chaos.

And most importantly it refers to the Three Affiliated Tribes’ herd, which I have encountered at first hand at polar points in its annual cycle – and whose story I learned of through both archival testimony in Washington DC and direct conversation with Mandan elders in North Dakota.

The Back Story

I first became aware of the Mandans in early 2009 whilst contemplating a forthcoming trip to Washington DC to participate in Wales Smithsonian Cymru at the invitation of the Welsh Government. In the course of a musing conversation, my late friend and colleague the poet Iwan Llwyd told me of Prince Madog, John Evans and the hunt for the ‘Welsh Indians’ – the Mandans being the tribe most immediately associated with the myth. Later, that summer, I asked Mandan elder and former tribal Chair Alyce Spotted Bear what she thought of the ‘Welsh connection’ and immediately regretted it. She’d never heard of it – and her eyes hardened at the idea. It’s not difficult to see why; why would you want to claim ancestry from a European oppressor? Fortunately, by the time I arrived in Fort Berthold I’d long been cynical of Eurocentric notions of ‘kinship’.

Bull Dance, Mandan O-kee-pa Ceremony. George Catlin 1832. Smithsonian American Art Museum.
‘the principal actors in it were eight men, with the entire skins of buffaloes thrown over their backs, with the horns and hoofs and tails remaining on, their bodies in a horizontal position, enabling them to imitate the actions of the buffalo, whilst they were looking out of its eyes as through a mask’. Catlin, Letters and Notes vol.1 no.22. 1841

If you tap in the word ‘Mandan’ in the course of an on-line image trawl, you will open a window on a vivid world of nineteenth century paintings and photographs that challenge the boundaries of anthropology and art. Today we most immediately think of George Catlin as a painter – but he viewed himself as an explorer whose great endeavour was to document cultures that he saw as being doomed. Nowadays he’d perhaps be a Simon Reeve or a Bruce Parry. Nevertheless, along with those of Karl Bodmer and Edward S. Curtis, his works are important documents of Native ways of life – and, in curiously circular fashion, have played a significant role in establishing contemporary cultural identity on the Fort Berthold Reservation, forming the core imagery of large murals that adorn communal meeting spaces.

So back to that image search. This is one of the images you will find – a photograph by Edward S. Curtis entitled ‘Offering The Buffalo Skull – Mandan’. Perhaps more than anything it was this that ignited within me a spark of wanderlust – or maybe wonder-lust…

I sat bolt upright when I saw it because I had just made a film (Dadeni, 2008) inspired by the archaeological excavation of a site of ritual feasting in the Vale of Glamorgan. Here –  in what now seemed to me a powerful echo of Curtis’ photograph – a horse skull is raised over (and eventually cast into) a cauldron of rebirth by a ‘shaman’. Within this sequence I’d cross-referenced the archaeology of Llanmaes, the Tale of Branwen and the tradition of the Mari Lwyd.  Dadeni is a fusion of archaeology, folklore, mythology and the contemporary landscape – an entwined assemblage which seems so immediately present in Wales. (Iwan Llwyd observed of the dig at Llanmaes “it’s like the Mabinogion coming out of the ground!”). As I now know, across the world and throughout time, rather than symbolising death, animal skulls embody both the life essence – the anima – of the creature and renewal or rebirth.

Several months later (and the upshot of an introduction facilitated by the Smithsonian) I was deeply fortunate that Alyce – a gracious woman of quiet power, honoured by President Obama and with a law on Indian education named after her – agreed to meet me and show me the Reservation. When I knocked on her office door in the Fort Berthold Community College and went in, the Curtis photo was the wallpaper on her computer screen.

There were a million reasons not to go to North Dakota. At so many points I thought “that’s it – I won’t go. It’s a stupid idea”, but then something would happen that made me think “no, I really have to”. So I did. On a number of occasions the ‘something’ was a timely email from Alyce. This, with the benefit of hindsight, seems extraordinarily fortunate in that the road to many a Reservation has a furrow worn in it by myriad white feet engaged in well-intentioned (but largely self-centred) pilgrimages. This steady trickle of ‘saviours’ must be (at best) wearing – but Alyce made time for me. 

Whilst I was undoubtedly naive I think it helped that I’d made it clear at the outset that I wasn’t interested in an angry or glorious twilight; rather in what had enabled the tribe to survive a succession of unimaginable trials – whose onset commenced with the arrival of Europeans, an agency that has dealt repeated hammer blows over the ensuing two centuries. And I think my interest in one particular aspect of the contemporary Mandan narrative had perhaps struck a chord.

Always intuitively drawn to creatures of  resonance, I had become fascinated with the tribal buffalo herd. This, I had learned, had been instigated as both powerful connection with ancestral culture and source of sustenance in the late 1980’s during Alyce’s tenure as tribal Chair. Central to this cultural heritage was the buffalo dance (depicted by both Catlin and Bodmer), a mimetic means of calling bison to the environs of Mandan towns and an important component in the Okipa, the ceremonial lynchpin in the Mandan annual round.

This seminal experience will hopefully be related in full one day and in appropriately respectful fashion. For now, it will suffice to say that my own ‘expedition’ left me with one most enduring impression which helped me to see my home in Wales with revised perspective. 

This is that those who have the will to maintain their culture – and so have a sense of who they are – are much more likely to remain strong and survive. Whereas those who lose it – for whatever reason – quickly descend into dysfunction. I had some sense of this already, but it crystallised as, after an instructive day with Alyce, her brother Kelly and I sat on the prairie in a pick-up surrounded by bison and their calves – whose physical presence in that moment symbolised all at once past, future and the herd as a single continuous organism.

Another moment remains etched in my memory. As we drove across the Reservation, Alyce  pointed out landmarks to me. Gesturing at a rocky extrusion on the horizon she said “that’s Thunder Butte over there – a pivotal landmark in our origin story”. I readied my pencil and notebook; “Wow. How does it go?” A moment of silence ensued, at the end of which Alyce said quietly: “We don’t tell that story until the snow comes”. And (it being July) that, it was clear, was that. Everything, it seemed, was done for a reason and at a particular time, this was the mechanism that held everything together – and the need to maintain its integrity was non-negotiable.

Back on the road to Twin Buttes, Alyce told me of the revival of the Okipa ceremony, again in the late 1980’s and of the return – or rather retrieval – of the buffalo, from the adjoining Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Later research in the Rinzler Archives at the Smithsonian relating to these two entwined episodes provided further affirmation and will, I hope, form the bedrock of the artworks I am endeavouring to make – which are concerned with these matters and with memory; both personal and cultural.

Click on Thunder Butte (above, on the horizon) to view photos of Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, July 2009

Despite my best intentions, I probably set out for New Town, North Dakota carrying an unhelpful and self-centred sense of injustice and tragic romance – largely propagated by Hollywood and my own liberal tendencies. But I returned with an overwhelming sense of hope, borne of the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit and of the indisputable role of culture in fuelling it. And within it of ritual – whether expressed as dance, song, story or pictogram – as the pragmatic ‘technology’ through which the land is known and long association with it proclaimed.

Click on the image of the Three Affiliated Tribes sign to view photos from Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, November 2013

But when I returned in November 2013 to make the artwork which I hoped would relate this powerful affirmation, Alyce was recently dead and everything had changed. The lush, tranquil prairie of summer 2009, now a uniform brown, was illuminated day and night by pernicious constellations formed from the roaring flames of gas flare-offs. Innumerable road tankers clattered and growled along shattered roads and fracking wells – the crude automata of the Bakken oil rush – stood like reapers, their scythes arcing unceasingly across the sacred land. 

Outwardly, it seemed as though the herd and Thunder Butte had been adopted as motifs by an apparently ostentatious tribal leader who, in the name of cultural continuity, was seeking to line his own pockets and poisoning both the land and all who inhabited it. I left profoundly depressed.

BUT. Who am I to judge? If you’ve been unrelentingly battered, had everything taken from you, you’ll grab a hold of any lifebuoy. And who are we – as mass consumers and proto-polluters – to preach to those we’ve stamped on? To condemn those who seek to secure the most basic elements of what we would perceive as a properly functioning society for themselves and their families?

Nevertheless, when, in stopping in the Four Bears Casino to grab a bar of chocolate, I asked the Native woman in the shop if she’d seen any improvements to life as a result of all the oil money coming into the Reservation, her reply was simple and direct:

“Nope. Just seen a lotta greed. It’s evil”.

Perhaps this shatters another trope. People are, after all, people – wherever you are.

This can’t end on this note. But where will it end?

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