Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lost Bird: Survivor of Wounded Knee, Betrayed by the White Man

Today is the 122nd anniversary of the  Massacre of Wounded Knee, and for that reason I am re-posting a story that I first posted last April, about a  baby girl of the Lakota tribe who was found alive four days after the massacre under the frozen body of her mother.  Her story is one of the most tragic chapters in the saga of what Native Americans suffered at the hands of the White man.

The Story Behind the Photograph

This antique photo is the most expensive and I think the most interesting one in my collection.  It’s an Imperial—which means a giant version of the cabinet card-- and measures  about 7 by 10 inches;  an albumen print mounted on decorative board.  It was taken in Beatrice, Nebraska by a photographer named Taylor.

As you can see, the photograph shows a handsome, stern-looking military officer in a general’s uniform holding an adorable Native American baby.  The officer is Gen. Leonard Colby who adopted this baby and had the photograph taken—as a public relations gesture.

This baby girl was found alive beneath the frozen body of her mother four days after the killing of hundreds of Lakota men, women and children on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota on Dec. 29, 1890, in what came to be known as the Massacre of Wounded Knee.

She was named “Zintkala Nuni” -- “The Lost Bird” by the tribe’s survivors, who tried to get custody of her, but she was adopted –also as a public relations move -- by  Brigadier General Leonard W. Colby, whose men came to the killing field after the massacre was over.

Over the protests of the Lakotas, he adopted the child, claiming that he was a full-blooded Seneca Indian.  He promised to bring food to the surviving tribe members if they’d give him this living souvenir of Wounded Knee. Then he had this photograph taken.  On the back Colby wrote in lead pencil on the black cardboard, words which are now nearly indecipherable:   “… girl found on the field of Wounded Knee…mother’s back on the fourth day after the battle, was found by me.  She was about 4 or 5 months old and was frozen on her head and feet, but entirely recovered.  The battle occurred Dec. 29, 1890, about fifteen miles walking from Pine Ridge, South Dakota.” 

Gen. Colby adopted the baby without even consulting his wife, Clara Bewick Colby, who was in Washington D.C. at the time, working as a suffragette activist, lecturer, publisher and writer.   The well-meaning adoptive mother brought the infant to Washington where Zintka, as they called her, grew up, buffeted by all the current social trends of the time—women’s suffrage, rejection by her own people, exploitation of her background by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, early silent films and vaudeville. 

As an adolescent, longing to return to the West to learn more about her origins.  Zintka went to Beatrice, Neb., to live with Colby, who by then had left his wife and daughter and married her former nanny.  The girl may have been sexually abused by her adoptive father, because she became pregnant under his care and was shipped off to a prison-like home for pregnant women.  Her infant son was stillborn but the girl was confined to the reformatory for another year.

Zintka returned eventually to her mother in Washington, then married a man who infected her with syphilis.  She tried different careers, including working with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which exploited her Native American background.    She tried to work in vaudeville and the early movie business—dressed as an Indian, of course-- and reportedly may have worked as a prostitute as well.

Zintka had two more children—one died and she gave the other to an Indian woman who, she felt, could take care of him better, because she and her ailing husband were desperately poor.

She fell ill in February of 1920 during an influenza epidemic, and on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, “Lost Bird” died at the age of 29 of the Spanish flu complicated by syphilis.  She was buried in a pauper’s grave in California.

The only bright light in Zintka’s story is that her bones were exhumed in 1991, seventy-one years after her death, by the Wounded Knee Survivor’s Association, to be returned to the battlefield and buried with great ceremony while news media and hundreds of Native American descendents watched.  A Lakota woman said, “Lost Bird has returned today to the same place she was taken from.  This means a new beginning, a process of healing is completed.  We can be proud to be a Lakota.  To our sacred children, this means a beginning.”

The story of Lost Bird is so steeped in irony that it reads as a fable of the exploitation and torture of the Native Americans by the white invaders.  On her own trail of tears, during her short life, Zintka was robbed of her name and her mother and any opportunity to learn about her own culture.  Despite her adoptive mother’s love and good intentions, she was terribly unhappy—prevented from going back to the West to find her kin and then sexually abused when she did return to the West. She was exploited and stereotyped by the film and entertainment world, eventually to die before she reached 30.

Lost Bird’s story has been told by Renee Sansom Flood in the 1998 book “Lost Bird of Wounded Knee: Spirit of the Lakota”, and Ms. Flood also spurred the effort to find Zintka’s grave and bring her home.  The author was a social worker in South Dakota when a colleague showed her a faded photograph that set her out on her years of research and writing.  That photo, found by the woman working with Renee Flood in an old trunk in her late father’s attic, was the same photo I own today—with Colby’s writing on the back. Renee Flood became so obsessed with telling Lost Bird’s story and bringing her home to be buried with her people that she had recurring dreams of the little girl until she fulfilled her obsession.
I know that owning this historic photograph is a serious responsibility. I, too,  would like to  spread the story of Zintka’s  sad life.  The story of Lost Bird is a vivid illustration of how a faded old photograph, over a century old, can have the power to move people to make discoveries long after the subject and the photographer are dead.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Thinking of Angels and the Children of Sandy Hook

One of the folk-art angels in my house
We need to believe in angels right now.  
This became clear to me on the day after the tragic events in Newtown, CT when I saw that an essay I wrote two years ago, called “A Christmas Eve Thought about Angels”—a post I had nearly forgotten about-- had suddenly become the most popular one on my blog . It was no doubt found on Google by people looking for some consolation—or some iota of meaning—in the Sandy Hook tragedy.  (They didn’t find it; the post was inspired by a visit to a cancer clinic with an ailing relative and was based on a bible verse I had learned as a child: ”Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” )
The Newtown massacre of little children by a deranged young man with too many guns is like a Rorschach test. Because so many details are unknown and so many conflicting versions of facts have been reported, we all read our own fears, theories and suspicions into it.  Because no one knows the WHY of it, or how a loving God could let this happen to innocent children, we keep chewing over every detail, trying to find a pattern or a reason, no matter how bizarre.
I’m as obsessed as anyone. Standing in line at Dunking Donuts yesterday, I started weeping because over the P.A. system I heard President Obama reciting the names of the dead children. 
We desperately want to find some consolation in the hope that the six- year-olds who died are now in heaven, being cared for by angels, and that their loved ones will see them again some day.  This has produced in the past week both eloquent statements and moving art, as well as maudlin poems and saccharine paintings of children surrounded by angels, and statements like “God needed 20 more angels on Friday”—clichés which make some people feel better but infuriate others like Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religious scholar and author of “The American Bible.” Who wrote “My Take: Six Things  I don’t want to hear after the Sandy Hook Massacre.” 
One thing he wrote in his essay was: “In the Jewish tradition, it is offensive to bring up the afterlife while in the presence of death. “  I know this is true, but I was both surprised and pleased while, listening to my car radio, I heard the reply of a Rabbi from Newtown when asked “What did you say to the little girl’s mother?”.  He said:  “I told her that personally I believe that the soul is eternal and that she will be reunited with her daughter some day.”
For myself, I do believe that angels exist and that they can intervene in our lives, although I don’t think they show up as luminous beings clothed in white with wings and halos.  I believe that many people are visited by angels —either loved ones who have passed on but still care about us or, sometimes, as living individuals who step in at a critical moment, then disappear, leaving you with the suspicion you have been in the presence of an “angel unawares.”
I ‘m certain that the bereaved parents of these murdered babies will hear from their lost children in various ways, either while asleep or awake, in the months to come, because the child will come to reassure the parent that he or she is all right.

Christmas, of course, is the time when we talk and think most about angels, from the heavenly host announcing the birth of Christ to the guardian angel Clarence who made his wings in “It’s a Wonderful Life” by stopping Jimmy Stewart from killing himself.

Guardian angels have intervened several times in my family’s life in critical situations.  The first was in 1974 when my husband, Nick, drove from our home in Massachusetts to Manhattan after the Thanksgiving holiday.  He had an ulcer that had perforated and he was bleeding internally, although he felt fine.  Stopping to pay at a toll booth in Connecticut, he was suddenly inspired to put on his seat belt which (in those days) he never wore.  Within minutes he passed out, drove the car into a lamppost on the turnpike, and was taken to a hospital where he had three blood transfusions and stayed through Christmas.

At the time I had a newborn and a 3 ½ year old (who woke up at the exact moment of the accident and told me his father was being attacked by sharks).  Between trips to the hospital in Connecticut, I didn’t think about putting up a Christmas tree until Christmas Eve, when I went to our local tree farm to be greeted by an empty lot except for the most beautiful blue spruce I’d ever seen, marked down to nine dollars.

We were all pretty sure that it was Nick’s mother, Eleni Gatzoyiannis, who had convinced him to put on his seat belt that night. In 1948, in their native Greek village, she was tortured and executed by Communist guerrillas because she engineered the escape of Nick, then nine, and three of his four sisters (a story that Nick told in the book Eleni.)  His mother was still looking after him in 2002, when Nick drove a rented car off the mountain road in his Greek village.  After rolling over, it landed on the only spot where it wouldn’t continue to fall down the mountain into the valley below.

We believe it was also Nick’s mother Eleni who tried to warn us in 1976 of an accident to our five-year-old son, Christos. Five months before it happened I dreamed that, during kindergarten recess, he fell off a rise in Manhattan’s Riverside Park.  I dreamed that his teacher called me, weeping, to say he’d broken his neck.  The dream was so vivid that I woke up Nick who said I was just being neurotic.

The accident happened in exactly the spot I’d dreamed about.  The teacher called me to come at once, but when I got there, my son hadn’t broken his neck, although he was in shock.  When I got him to the hospital I learned that he had two broken wrists, because he put out his hands just in time to break his fall.

When I called Nick at his office, I learned that at 12:15, when the accident happened, he was at a business lunch and had a dizzy spell and thought he was having a heart attack.  Once again, his angel was trying to warn him.

So if guardian angels exist, why did those 20 children at Sandy Hook die, despite the heroic efforts of their teachers and school personnel to save them?  No matter how hard we study the details to find a plan, a reason, a rationale, a motive for this atrocity, we won’t.  But it’s the nature of the human mind to try. 

There’s some solace in learning about the children who managed to survive—the little girl, covered in blood, who emerged from the school to say “Mommy, I’m all right but all of my friends are dead.”  And the six children found sitting in the driveway of a nearby house which happened to belong to a grandfather who was a psychiatrist.  He brought the six children inside, ran upstairs and grabbed an armload of stuffed animals, gave the survivors juice and listened to them say, “We can’t go back to school because our teacher, Miss Soto, is dead.”

It will take a long time for those children to heal, but they will heal, because children are brave and resilient.  It will take the bereaved parents longer—perhaps forever—to heal, but it may be that a belief in angels –or encounters with their own angels—will help them.

One Sandy Hook teacher, Kaitlin Roig, who managed to crowd her class of 15 children into a tiny bathroom and barricade the door, said that the children kept telling her: “I want to live until Christmas.”  Twenty children from their school did not live to see Christmas and their parents are left to deal with the sight of unopened gifts beneath the tree, but for the 15 children in Kaitlin Roig’s classroom, maybe their teacher was an angel unawares.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Hands Tell the Story, or Do They?

I'm in Manhattan for a quick two-day visit and this morning I headed straight for Sotheby's auction house to get a look at the exhibition of "A Show of Hands: Photographs from the Collection of Henry Buhl."
This photograph from the collection is by Herbert Bayer, called "Lonely Metropolitan"

Here's what the Sotheby's catalogue has to say about this amazing collection:

Sotheby’s is pleased to announce the sale of A Show of Hands: Photographs from Collection of Henry Buhl.  The Buhl Collection comprises one of the most significant collections of photographs in private hands today.  Put together with wit, perception, and passion by Henry M. Buhl, the collection shows the hand in a variety of roles—as a vehicle for emotion, an object of scientific study, and a metaphor for the human condition, among many others.  Using hands as a focal point, the collection spans the evolution of the photographic medium, from the 1840s to the present day. 

As you know if you saw my blog post "Found Art -- A Magical Show of Hands"  back in April, I've been fascinated by representations of hands for a long time and have been collecting them -- especially folk art versions, like the "Hand of Christ".  I don't collect hand photographs--although many of my early daguerreotypes show portraits of people with very strange arrangements of their hands, because early photographers spent a great deal of time posing the hands so they would look graceful and not overly large (or foreshortened.)

Henry Buhl's collection of photographs is going on sale at Sotheby's starting tomorrow, Weds. Dec. 12 , as well as two more sessions on Thursday.  I will not be there--I'll be back in Massachusetts, and the estimates on these photographs range from $500 to tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars--putting them all a little above my collecting budget.

But seeing the exhibit reminded me once again how  hands are so laden with emotion, so revealing of character, so completely charged with  meaning,  that after looking at some of the hundreds in the exhibit I was exhausted and emotionally drained.  (Think babies' hands, dismembered hands, bleeding hands, hands caressing and killing, politicians and street beggars extending their hands, rock fans waving their hands in the air, mothers' hands holding out starving babies, fashion models and dancers' hands--and a lot of erotica as well.)

Well, it was quite a morning, but it also got me to thinking about why hands fascinate me so.  

Because I paint portraits, I often cut out of newspapers images of people in the grip of great emotion,  (because you can't get a model to mimic true emotion and hold it) and I've noticed that when people suddenly see something horrific, they almost always put their hand over their mouth.  Like this:

Getty Images

This happens to be a photo of Princess Maxima and Prince Willem Alexander of the Dutch royal family, reacting in horror in May of 2009 when an attacker drove a car into a crowd of spectators.  But if you come across a news photo of bystanders reacting to, say, a corpse in the street, or a terrible accident, you'll see they all have a hand over their mouth. Why?  Why do we instinctively do this?

from Vanity Fair
And here's another photo that caught my attention.  It's President Obama in the situation room telling his security advisers that he has launched the raid that ultimately succeeded in killing Bin Laden.  Notice that every man among his listeners has his hand over his mouth--not in horror, but what are they saying?  Only Hillary is not doing this, but later, when Obama and advisers are watching the raid live on the screen, she has her hand over her mouth in what looks like horror.

I suggest that in the first photo the men listening--the security advisers--are dubious about the  wisdom of the raid but are not about to say anything.  Or perhaps they're afraid it will fail and don't want to share that.  What do you think this gesture, which is sort of a "I'm-thinking-hard" pose, really mean?

That's all I have to say right now about hands, but seeing the Buhl  collection in person was not only exhausting, it was also inspiring, and the photographer in me wants to try a whole lot of new ways to photograph hands to tell a story.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The “Creative” Elves are at it Again!

 Here in North Grafton, MA, our picturesque and historic New England village, I did a double take over a year ago when I drove by the stately Greek Revival mansion up the street from me and noticed that someone had moved in (it was empty for a long time) and painted the front door a striking turquoise. Somehow the jazzy door made my day.

I kept an eye on the mansion at 151 Worcester Street (Rte 140) as it was decorated for the Fourth of July this summer with red, white and blue banners hanging down the two-storey high columns. Then, in Halloween, when it was infested by spiders bigger than Volkswagens and mummies hanging from the windows, I had to find out who was behind this inspired decorating.  So I knocked at the turquoise door.
 Turns out the mansion has been acquired by a team of young design geniuses who call themselves Bergeron Creative Studios, led by Al Bergeron. They are “a nationally recognized, award-winning branding firm” according to their website ,  who have won all sorts of awards for making videos, creating logos, and doing high-tech stuff for their clients that I’m too low-tech to understand.

Nevertheless Dara King, the company’s Social Media Director, kindly gave me a tour of the offices, filled with antiques and ultra-modern furniture and fixtures they’ve designed themselves.   I noticed that the color turquoise has been strategically used on the front stairs and on details of the colonial moldings.

When I complimented Al and Dara on the Halloween décor, they said in unison “Wait till you see what we do for the holidays.”  So last Sunday I was there to watch the unveiling as their photographer, Dan Vaillancourt, recorded the scene.  They had personally built, painted and lighted all four Nutcrackers, each of them eight feet high. Rudolph was peering out the attic window and providentially, just as the photographer snapped the photo, Santa Claus and his reindeer were out on a practice run silhouetted by the moon.
  Al Bergeron setting up one of the nutcrackers
When the Worcester Telegram and Gazette published photos of the Halloween décor in October, Al was quoted as saying, “The Creative Mansion is an iconic and well-known landmark – our seasonal decorations are one way we can give back to the community.”

Another way is by collecting toys for needy kids and Dara wanted me to pass on the word that the Creative Mansion is a drop off for Toys for Tots during this holiday season.
 Taking a final look at their work
Having the Creative Mansion nearby has really enlivened the neighborhood, as every night passers-by are honking their car horns and waving to signal their approval. Not since MGM used Grafton’s village center as the set for the film “Ah Wilderness” in 1935 has there been so much excitement around here. 
"Warning:  contagious ideas beyond this point."
Personally, I can’t wait to see what the Creative Mansion gang will do for Valentine’s Day.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Cemetery Called "Hope"

Tonight is the last meeting of a class I've been taking at the Worcester Art Museum called "Documentary Photography", taught by Norm Eggert -- the same teacher who taught the "Night Photography" class I took a while back.

Tonight we present our final project, and I decided to do mine about Hope Cemetery in Worcester, MA, where the family of my husband Nick is buried--especially since I've been there recently for the funeral of Nick's sister Lillia and her 40-day memorial service in November.

Here are some (not all) of the photos I'm submitting for the project.

A Cemetery Called Hope

Hope Cemetery is the place where my body will be buried.  I like visiting and photographing cemeteries because they’re filled with virtual symbols of love, expressed in the words engraved on the stones, the flowers, candles, flags, toys, burning incense, balloons, statues, birthday cakes, prayers, rosaries,  letters, even bottles of whiskey and un-smoked cigarettes left by visitors on the graves.

All these things are an expression of the hope that one day we may be reunited with our departed loved ones.  No one knows if that’s true, but that’s why “Hope” is an appropriate name for a cemetery. 

The most moving tributes are those left on the stones in the “Garden of the Innocents” bearing the names of infants who died shortly after they were born.  Often these stones are the only record of these babies’ existence.  Although the burials are paid for by the city if the parents can’t afford it, some of these bereaved parents come to their child’s grave for decades and always leave a toy, flower or polished stone to mark their visit.