Excerpt: The Grass Shall Grow

The following is an excerpt from The Grass Shall Grow: Helen Post Photographs and the Native American West by Mick Gidley (February).

Dialogic Power

In 1829 newspapers carried accounts of a speech attributed to the Muskogee leader Speckled Snake in response to President Andrew Jackson’s proposals to remove the Muskogee people from their ancestral lands in the Southeast to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi. It was an oration full of irony, irony that deliberately undercut Speckled Snake’s apparent acknowledgment of Jackson’s promise to leave his people in peace, once settled in the West, for as
long as “the grass grows and the rivers run.” Oliver La Farge, as noted earlier, presented Euro-Americans as the creative originators of such expressions: “When our forefathers made their treaties with the Indians, they sought for language which should convince a people utterly innocent of our legalities that these promises were binding and eternal”—hence, “as long as the rivers shall run and the grass shall grow”

From the earliest formal encounters between European (then Euro-American) leaders and Native leaders, white observers—most famously Thomas Jefferson—have remarked on the rhetorical power and grace of indigenous speakers. True, onlookers inherently hostile to Indians often considered such eloquence mere glibness, but even some of them noted, in particular, the effective deployment by Native orators of powerful metaphors taken from nature. One informed commentator, writing in the North American Review soon after Jackson’s speech, observed that the president had in fact used these “figures [of speech] . . . in strict accordance with Indian usage.” La Farge was therefore most likely wrong in denying to any Native speech maker the creative agency behind his title expression. But despite his oftentimes paternalistic attitudes—attitudes his biographer, D’Arcy McNickle, Native himself, sometimes found oppressive—La Farge was perceptive enough to see the expression as a trope and then to use it in As Long as the Grass Shall Grow.

Some of the phrase’s force comes from its seemingly organic aptness, some from its elevated formality, some from the associations it gathers by variation and repetition, and some from the sense that it is, indeed, eminently borrowable, in fact in dialogue with other discourse. William M. Clements has shown that—like such formulations as “the path” (for the way of life to be adopted), “the Great White Father” (and “his Indian children”), “burying the hatchet,” and so forth—the perennial growth of “the grass” is a figure of speech that, because of its reiteration and variation, reverberates with dialogic energy. Even if recorded by white writers, it has a dynamism imparted and reinvigorated by Native speakers. I suggest that Native agency was also at work in the books to which Helen Post contributed and, especially, in Post’s pictures.

As Long as the Grass Shall Grow, as we have seen, emphasizes its evidential character. Its format is “read-and-see.” Its author asserts his firsthand knowledge of the book’s subject matter. And, of course, its photographs are presented as direct and truthful testimony. In these ways, and more, the book takes its place as an example of what William Stott, in his pioneering study, called the “documentary expression” of the American 1930s. In particular, as a photographic documentary book, it may be compared with such better-known contemporary works as Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) or Dorothea Lange and Paul Schuster Taylor’s American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion (1939), both of which, in words and photographs, treated impoverished tenant farmers and, in the case of the latter book, their frequent dispossession and migration westward.

As noted earlier, James Agee and Walker Evans—so open in their phototext Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) about their own ambivalence in endeavoring to represent others—despised the stance of Caldwell and Bourke-White: they believed You Have Seen Their Faces had deliberately opted “to cheapen [the book’s subjects and] . . . to exploit them—who had already been so exploited.” Stott pointed out that Bourke-White overemotionalized her portraits of the sharecroppers, making them seem abject, and that she and her novelist coauthor—in their caption quotations that purported to emanate from the sharecroppers themselves—attributed to them not just extremes of misery but thorough ignorance of their own state. As he puts it, the worst accompanying legends “say . . . ‘Look at me, my life is so wretched I don’t even know it.’” Unlike the subjects of the portraits in American Exodus, to which Lange and Taylor scrupulously attached captions consisting of the verbatim sayings of the particular person in the photograph, Caldwell and Bourke-White’s people positively lack consciousness.

Nothing like such criticism can be leveled against Post—or La Farge—in As Long as the Grass Shall Grow. La Farge may have been paternalistic, but he was well aware of prejudices against Indians rampant in the dominant culture and of his own responsibility to get things in proper perspective: “one must look further, behind Congress and government, for they only reflect the attitudes of the people at large. The slow massacre of maladministration, the misery of the children, lie at the doors of you who read and of me who writes these words” (58–59). Post never expressed any parallel opinion, even privately. She took no pictures that overtly point up white prejudice against Native people in the manner of her sister’s photograph, taken in 1941, of Signs behind the Bar in Birney, Montana. Her work evidences no interest at all in whatever whites thought. But she aimed, at least, to bridge any gap there might be between herself and her Native subjects. She was concerned about them as people, and her photographs quietly affirm their humanity. In these concluding remarks, I wish both to continue to stress this view and to show how her images, like the treaty speeches, are dialogic: as such, while they document numerous aspects of reservation life at the time, they also affirm Native presence, input, and consciousness.

Signs behind the Bar in Birney, Montana. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.

But first, we must face questions raised by the relationship between text and pictures in As Long as the Grass Shall Grow—a relationship, as already hinted, that can be troubling. The text refers to the pictures as able to “speak” (42, 81, 133), and several times it implies that the photographs’ human subjects themselves do so address us. This seems especially the case in the picture sequence that begins with the words, “He [the U.S. president] is not our father,” and ends on, “Nothing to do but wait” (36–39)—and when we turn the page an untitled and undescribed photograph shows a man and woman riding away, as if they have, indeed, tired of waiting (fig. 50). The printed legends above or below many of the photographs only appear to be words spoken by their subjects; for example, “You must not listen to the old men” (17). Or, as in the case of the Jicarilla store transaction picture (fig. 45), to register the satisfying situation they face: “Their store shows a steady profit” (99).

The clearest example of all is that final sequence supposedly representing “The desire of the Indian people speaking” (133), which begins with the picture of a Crow worker hooking up a reaper that carries the legend, “We shall learn all these devices the white man has, we shall handle his tools for ourselves” (134). The following image, captioned, “We shall master his machinery,” shows another Crow man, this time running a dragline shovel (135), the next a Flathead worker seen from below, operating high up on power lines (fig. 64), with the words, “His inventions” (136). These are followed by a laborer threading pipe (“His skills,” 36), a Navajo nurse (“His medicine,” 138), someone at the drawing board (“His planning,” 139), and, finally, the smiling CCC-ID worker (“And . . . still . . . be . . . Indians,” 140). Leaving aside what most people today would recognize as the inherent racism here—there is nothing essentially “white” about medical knowledge or skill with tools or anything essentially “Indian” about their absence such phrases actually belong, of course, not to their “speakers” but to La Farge. In fact, the final words of As Long as the Grass Shall Grow, as McNickle has pointed out, very specifically belonged to La Farge, in that they were lifted almost word for word from Myron Begay, the protagonist of the writer’s then recent Navajo novel, The Enemy Gods: “We have to learn to use the white man’s knowledge, his weapons, his machines—and still be Indians.”

The Native subjects of the photographs in As Long as the Grass Shall Grow are, themselves, silent. They are silent whether they gaze into the distance, gather over a bed in the boarding school dormitory, or meet at the powwow or rodeo. Given that photography, by nature, only ever offers what William Henry Fox Talbot, one of its nineteenth-century inventors, termed “mute testimony,” they are silent even when apparently speaking. Even when we witness Stabs Down by Mistake addressing his Blackfeet Tribal Council, we do not know what he said. When we see Robert Yellowtail seemingly enlarging on some issue or other, we cannot ascertain what it was. But speech is not the only sign of agency. As Fox Talbot recognized and demonstrated, the encompassing frame of the photograph and its capacity to present intense detail as well as a broad, luminous picture grant authority to its “testimony.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s