January 25, 2018

Knute W. Bergan and The Piegan Medicine Lodge

by Kelly Burton, Film Archivist

Opening credits of The Piegan Medicine Lodge (PAc 2018-06)

On May 9, 1968, Montana Historical Society Director Sam Gilluly (1967-1974) conducted a short oral history interview he simply labeled, “FROM TAPE BY RUSS STEEN ON BLACKFEET DANCE.” The five-page transcript (OH 37) details the filmed documentation of a Piegan ceremony held in Heart Butte, Montana during the summer of 1956, the title of which was never stated. Interviewee Russ Steen was the Director of Audio-Visual Education at the Montana’s Department of Public Instruction in the mid-1950s, and he served as both a technician and a consultant on the unnamed documentary. Fish and Game Department photographer Kenneth Thompson acted as the cameraman in Heart Butte, and Alfred Humphreys, Supervisor of Music for the Department of Public Instruction, provided the narration and soundtrack for the film. Knute W. Bergan, another consultant on the film, was the Director of Indian Education at the Department of Public Instruction, and it was his relationship with the various tribes in Montana which ultimately allowed the crew to document what would have been a ceremony closed to photographers.

Chief Iron Pipe recounts the legend of Scarface (PAc 2018-06)

Comparing the details of Steen’s reminiscences with various Piegan-related materials in the Historical Society’s moving image collections, it becomes clear that film under discussion is a documentary entitled The Piegan Medicine Lodge. The 23-minute film begins with Chief Iron Pipe explaining a Piegan ceremony through gestures and in the Blackfoot language, which is then overdubbed by Humphreys in English. According to the legend, “Scarface, a young brave, traveled to the home of the great Sun God to get permission to marry a beautiful maiden. The Sun God gave his permission for the marriage, removed the ugly scar from the young brave’s face, and revealed to him the medicine lodge ceremony which Scarface brought back to his people.” The narrator then explains the occasion for performing the ritual in 1956: “The medicine lodge ceremony portrayed in this picture was promised by Maggie Swims Under to the Great Spirit, the Sun, when she prayed for the recovery of her grandson, Joseph, who was ill at the time with polio. Joseph recovered, and true to her promise, Maggie Swims Under held this medicine lodge, thanking the Great Spirit of the Sun for sparing her grandchild.” As the narrator describes various aspects of the proceedings, images of Maggie Swims Under performing ceremonials in the medicine woman’s sacred tipi are intercut with the construction of the medicine lodge by male members of the tribe. The ceremonial four-day fast by Maggie Swims Under is broken by the eating of thinly-sliced, boiled bison tongue, and the following day is then given over to feasting and entertainment. Events documented in the film include a parade celebrating tribe members in the armed forces, the performance of traditional songs and dances, and the playing of the Stick Game by a gathered group.

Cutting the center pole for the medicine lodge (PAc 2018-06)

The interview with Russ Steen provides the historian with several anecdotes not included in the narration of the film. Specific time frames and working conditions are initially discussed by the interviewee: “This took place just after the Fourth of July. During the period that followed there we had rain, and many conditions came up that extended this period of taking this over seventeen days. We lived there, in Heart Butte School, but visited back and forth with the Indians.” Steen then speaks of the ceremony itself, particularly the hardships undertaken by the medicine woman, Maggie Swims Under: “She was supposed to remain in there for four days with her sister, but after she was in there three days she found out there was going to be a funeral for an old friend, and so she broke fast and went to town and needed to come back and start this fast over. She just drank a little bit of water and had a little amount, a very little amount, of food, and it was quite an endurance test as far as I could see.” Some of the more illuminating aspects of the conversation pertain to Bergan’s relationship with the tribe, and the permissions this friendship affords his project. Steen describes another visitor who was denied the right to film the ceremony, despite the offer of money: “That day there was $500 that he had offered to take pictures of Mrs. Swims Under and it was refused, and yet here we were his friends and were able to do this. And this was a great tribute to Mr. Bergan, I think, because he did have deep friendship with the Indians.”

Maggie Swims Under breaks the four-day fast (PAc 2018-06)

The Montana Historical Society digitized Bergan’s 16mm print of The Piegan Medicine Lodge in 2017, in cooperation with the Siksika Board of Education. This film is now available for viewing in our Research Center, and can also be seen here on the Historical Society’s YouTube channel.