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Charles Marion Russell: Grade AAA Phoenecian, Wild West Mythological Artist


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Sep 21, 2020
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(I published this on SH in 2019, December. I didn't download the version into which it evolved. I want to post what I have, basically a rough draft, and add elements that improve it. All the comments are similarly lost. If anyone has has any comments they want to add, similar to their original comments, please add them. Of course, all comments remain welcome. I'll keep editing it until I get it into some semblance of the original. But like every disaster recovery, it is tedious work.)

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The paper concerns the famous artist of the Montana Wild West, Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926). I’m not a painter. I’m an anthropologist. And we anthropologists have been grappling with the discourses and depictions of the vanishing since, well, the mighty cowboy actor, Ronald Wilson Reagan, came to power in 1980. The grasping for and reconstruction of the past was a world-wide phenomenon in the early 20th century and it persists to this day. Maybe it too is fading away. I must ask this question; for I’m getting older and losing my feel for this weird world. But if so, Donald J. Trump would not use the slogan “Make America Great Again”, and the Montana House of Representatives would not preside to this day under the mythological artistry of C. M. Russell:

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The speaker sits just below Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians, 1912. It might as well be the 10 Commandments or Michelangelo.

Montana is small enough, population 1.06 million, that if one gets around a little, one is bound to have some friends, relatives or acquaintances who have served in the state legislature. I do, and I didn’t even graduate from high school in Montana. That said, the painting itself says it all about the mythology in which we Montanans grew up.

The naive and understood reading: a small party of innocent but industrious European Americans set out to map and generally introduce themselves to the lands (and people) just purchased from Napoleon. The Noble Savage met them on the high plains with a sunset of colors signifying their end, the desire of the Europeans, and a magnificent peace that would surely ensue. Well, we know from Miles that Napoleon was also a grade AAA spook, a product of the Phoenician Navy which seems to still control the world (more below).

(We could also look at the names Lewis and Clark and know for near certainty that they, too, are from the families of that monopoly of power, fronted by Napoleon. A cursory look at geni.com shows Captain Meriwether Lewis’ ancestors can be traced straight to Col. John Lewis, l, of Monmouthshire, also known as John "the immigrant" Lewis. He was born in Wales in 1592 and died in Virginia in 1657. We know from Miles’ research that the name and the rank throw up red flags. The name Clark is similarly situated. The entire operation looks like a Phoenician Navy undertaking. And because this operation remains at work, this particular story of Lewis and Clark needs a more thorough unpacking than I can give it here. In comments to the original version, it was noted that Capt. Lewis is related to George Washington.)

While I grew up in Billings, Montana (population approximately 62,000 in 1970), the Vietnam War was raging, Berkeley and other college campuses were ablaze with protests, Central Catholic High School kids walked happily past my house in full hippie regalia. But, by far the most important mythology that ensnared me and everyone else was that of the Wild West, Cowboys versus Indians, Marshal Matt Dillon of (as I see it now, the very campy) “Gunsmoke” TV series and its space cowboy (also campy) cousin, “Star Trek.” We lived it. We breathed it. We spoke it. We thought it. We replayed the Battle of Little Big Horn, shown by Miles to have been a 9/11 style hoax, on hilly empty lots on the edge of town. The only time I seemed free of it was when my dad and mom packed up the Buick station wagon and headed north to the places where my parents grew up as children in the 1920s and 30s— precisely the locations of the Wild West. Outside even the small towns of five thousand or less, my aunts and uncles and cousins were concerned about their machinery, their busted knuckles or missing fingers, the price of cattle and wheat, the big supper and small dinner, the condition of relatives in North Dakota, the likelihood of rain, and the specter (and now epidemic) of cancers related to chemicals commonly used on the farms and ranches of Montana and elsewhere. It was an alien land to me, not covered by the mythos. For kids it was filled with fun and danger. Horses and saddles, motorized three-wheelers, automobile graveyards, bats, snakes, gophers, wind, chewing tobacco, guns, giant clams in the river bottoms, and dry endless space above.

The Montana of reality wasn’t something like this:

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Camp Cook’s Troubles, 1912.​

It was much more like this:

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Daily life, even in 1970 on a farm on the high plains demanded a stern demeanor. But in the mythical Old West it was always sunset or less likely sunrise (and in the movies, High Noon), always a little amusing or a little sad, always epoch. But reality was hard and dangerous; and it could and was counted in dollars and cents. My Norwegian ancestors kept their homestead (and expanded it) through the Great Depression to this day because they were shrewd people. They aligned with fraternal and secret societies (The Odd Fellows, Sons of Norway, the Rebeccas) and their churches (Lutheran, Missouri Synod). Foot soldiers of the Western European/Phoenician alliance. The mythology was for us city slickers.

The fantasy/reality, split was not what go me thinking about C.M. Russell, however. One only needs to read Baudrillard to get up to speed. The Wild West Mythos remains a snow job of the highest order, yet one totally in keeping with the entire Hollywood project and the projects of modernizing nations the world over since 1900. No, what got me thinking about C.M. Russell was the stark division between the imagined pre-settler reality versus what I now increasingly believe to have been in place prior to the arrival of homesteading settlers.

Charlie Russell painted the pre-contact world like this:

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When the Land Belonged to God, 1911​

This is a poignant depiction to be sure if only because, due to commercial hunting and slaughter, the American Bison numbered only 541 head by 1889, the year Montana entered the union. In 1800 there were estimated to be 60,000,000 head on the High Plains.

These figures may well be accurate. But what seems to me to lack accuracy is the depiction of the natives as inhabiting a world deprived of civilization, i.e., permanent settlements of anything other than the most primitive accommodations. This sinister idea infuses even the thought of those who would object strongly to the “racist” notion that Plains Indians were “noble savages”; rather, academics and almost anyone sensitive to the plight of Native Americans in Montana and elsewhere (and I frankly think almost every Montanan I have ever known is sensitive and troubled by the plight of Native Americans in Montana). Nonetheless, the sensitivity is based on the belief that the natives lived “at one with nature” in some sort of holy communion with the Goddess of the Earth that Europeans lost long ago. But I think this is misdirection. I now think there was much more in place in Montana in the late 19th century that went purposefully ignored by the writers and artists who developed the prevailing mythology. To get an idea of what I mean, consider this photograph, taken during Russell’s lifetime, of Great Falls, Montana— the town where Charlie Russell painted and resided during his most productive years:

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One should notice immediately the electric cable car operating on a track laid out down the middle of Central Avenue. The avenue itself is lined with buildings built with brick and stone masonry. The obvious question is if by 1920 the city of Great Falls had 20,000 residents, how would they have constructed such an urbane environment? It is surely not the world depicted by C.M. Russell, even though he only lived three or four blocks from this scene. Among other questions, one wonders from where did the bricks come? Who did the masonry? Why would they take the enormous trouble to lay track, import, and power a workable street car and tear it out within a few years? In fact, all Montana cities and all cities all over the American west, from St. Louis to Seattle and from Los Angeles to Duluth, Minnesota show signs of architecture and development that simply cannot be explained by the usual narratives. What we’ve been given instead is a mythos built on an imaginary encounter between young, sensuous, wise and strong savages who gave way to the earnest organization and technological power of competing European Americans.

Charlie Russell was key to creating the fantasy by which buildings such as this could be ignored:


According to the narrative I could find, this castle-like structure was built in 1893; and it was shut down with the advent of prohibition. No one I know in Great Falls knows where this building was even located. But one must ask the usual questions: With a population of less than 5,000 people in 1890, how did this get constructed? Where did the brick come from? Who did the masonry? Were the settlers of Great Falls so preoccupied with beer that they would put enormous effort into the construction of a giant, castle-like structure simply to brew beer? And then shut it down a couple decades later, only to then eradicate its presence totally at some later date, as was done with the electric trolly on Central Avenue? Something is seriously amiss. And our AAA Spook, C.M. Russell played his part in the misdirection.

Let’s look at the official narrative of his life, as presented in Wikipedia:

Art was always a part of Russell's life. Growing up in Missouri, he drew sketches and made clay figures of animals. Russell had an intense interest in the "wild west" and would spend hours reading about it. Russell would watch explorers and fur traders who frequently came through Missouri. He learned to ride horses at Hazel Dell Farm near Jerseyville, Illinois, on a famous Civil War horse named Great Britain. Russell's instructor was Col. William H. Fulkerson, who had married into the Russell family. At the age of sixteen, Russell left school and went to Montana to work on a sheep ranch.

I laughed when reading this. His horse was named Great Britain! Only a half century after the Americans supposedly beat back the British for a second time to ensure their independence? His mentor was a colonel, another red flag. And, of course, no mention is made anywhere of the fact that in the mid-19th century St. Louis possessed some of the most amazing brick and masonry buildings on the entire continent. It was, in other words, hardly a mere frontier town. This is the mid-century St. Louis waterfront:

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We should look at the genealogy of Charles Russell himself. I’m not a genealogical virtuoso, and I hope Miles will add his input from his store of awareness, experience, and genius. But having started with geni.com only in the middle of the night yesterday, I probably lucked into one of the easiest genealogies to trace in the entire world! For C.M. Russell’s paternal lineage extends without interruption of any kind from Russell to Russell straight back to 1066, where they apparently landed in England from Normandy. In fact, in Russell’s lineage, nearly every patriarch marries another Russell. In nearly twenty-five generations, I find only five marriages with non Russells (a Mead, a Bent, a Clinton, a Bardoff, and a Sullivan). There may be a couple more; for their names are not identified. But, if Russell were a breed of dog, would it not be considered pure?

Of particular note, is John Russell, Earl of Bedford. As is typical with the Russells, he he was politically notable. John Russell, in fact, found favor with several monarchs, having “attained some position at the court of Henry VII, and was subsequently in great favor with Henry VIII." He was knighted and made secret diplomatic missions to France and to Pope Clement VII. Eventually, he was granted the highest rank of nobility, Earl of Bedford. He shares a striking resemblance to Charles Marion Russell.

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Forward 10 or so generations, we learn from Wikipedia that Charlie headed off on a politically important mission of his own:

Russell left the sheep ranch and found work with Jake Hoover, a hunter and trapper who had become a rancher. He owned land in the Judith Basin. Russell learned much about the ways of the West from him, and the two men remained lifelong friends.[7] After a brief visit in 1882 to his family in Missouri, Russell returned to Montana, and lived and worked there for the remainder of his life.

He worked as a cowboy for a number of outfits, and documented the harsh winter of 1886–1887 in a number of watercolors.[7] Russell was working on the O- H Ranch in the Judith Basin of Central Montana at the time. The ranch foreman received a letter from the owner, asking how the cattle herd had weathered the winter. In reply, the foreman sent a postcard-sized watercolor that Russell had painted of a gaunt steer being watched by wolves under a gray winter sky. The ranch owner showed the postcard to friends and business acquaintances, and eventually displayed it in a shop window in Helena, Montana. After this, the artist began to receive commissions for new work...Beginning in 1888, Russell spent a period living with the Blood Indians, a branch of the Blackfeet nation.[8] Scholars believe that he gained much of his intimate knowledge of Native American culture during this period.[7] When he returned to the Judith Basin in 1889, he found it filling with settlers. He worked in more open places for a couple of years before settling in the area of Great Falls, Montana, in 1892. There he worked to make a living as a full-time artist.[7]

In 1896, Russell married his wife Nancy. He was 32 and she was 18.[7] In 1897, they moved from the small community of Cascade, Montana to the bustling county seat of Great Falls. Russell spent the majority of the remainder of his life there. He continued with his art, becoming a local celebrity and gaining the acclaim of critics worldwide. As Russell was not skilled in marketing his work, Nancy is generally given credit for making him an internationally known artist. She set up many shows for Russell throughout the United States and in London, creating many followers of Russell.

In 1913, Russell painted Wild Horse Hunters, which depicts riders capturing wild horses, each band of which is dominated by a stallion. He used as much color as an artist could on his mountain landscapes.[9] As an artist, Russell emerged at a time when the Wild West was of intense interest to people who lived in cities, and cattle drives were still being conducted over long distances. He painted images of the Old West that were later adopted by Westerns, which became a movie staple.

Russell was fond of these popular art forms and made many friends among the well-off collectors of his works, including actors and film makers such as William S. Hart, Harry Carey, Will Rogers, and Douglas Fairbanks. Russell also kept up with fellow artists of the West, including painter Edgar Samuel Paxson, painter Edward "Ed" Borein and Will Crawford the illustrator.

On the day of Russell's funeral in 1926, the children in Great Falls were released from school so they could watch the funeral procession. Russell's coffin was displayed in a glass-sided coach, pulled by four black horses.[10] Russell produced about 4000 works of art, including oil and watercolor paintings, drawings and sculptures in wax, clay, plaster and other materials, some of which were also cast in bronze.[11]

One doesn’t doubt that C.M. Russell was a devoted artist— though the quality may be questioned. But his biography continues to show many red flags. Most of them I can’t answer because geni.com suddenly decided to no longer search for me. But we must begin with Jake Hoover. We must at least pose the question of relation to J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. We also know that the Judith Basin’s largest city is Lewiston. Russell supposedly worked “for a number of outfits.” What does this mean? Doing what? Washing dishes? Branding cattle? Drawing pictures of sickly animals? Seems unlikely considering the seriousness of the people and times. A small sketch posted in Helena led to him becoming famous? (The well-known line of George Carlin applies here: “It is called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”) He lived with the Blackfeet for “a period”? Obviously less than a year. Did he learn their language? Was he a prototypical participant observer or a spy? He made it over to Great Falls by 1892, just in time for the opening of the brewery! He found a wife, supposedly from poor circumstances. But hardly believable considering his pedigree. She became his business manager. Perhaps she was his handler? He traveled more and more and his work became the basis for Hollywood representations. He was given the kind of grand funeral unheard of in Montana, even to this day. I’ve seen the carriage at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls. It is more fitting of high level nobility— the class to which Charlie more or less belonged.

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Late in life he wintered in Southern California. His wizardry in service of the cause certainly ensure him an honorable place in the Phoenician Navy. In fact, I wonder if the his visage (or more precisely that of his family or his breed) can now be found on the Seal of the Great State of California:

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