The Man Who Talks Not: John L. Clarke and the Politics of Mixed-Race Identity in Montana, 1900–50

Friday, January 4, 2013: 11:10 AM
Cornet Room (Sheraton New Orleans)
Andrew R. Graybill, Southern Methodist University
This paper uses the life of John L. Clarke to illustrate the unexpected ways that some people of mixed native-white ancestry responded to the increasingly binary racial categories in the early to mid-twentieth century American West.  Born in Montana in 1881 to a Piegan (Blackfeet) mother and a father of blended Blackfeet-Scottish heritage, John was rendered deaf and mute in infancy by scarlet fever.  In his youth he became an expert woodcut artist, a skill acquired and nourished at residential institutions for the deaf in North Dakota and Wisconsin.  He returned to Montana on the eve of World War I and opened a small studio on the edge of the Blackfeet Reservation, where he lived until his death in 1970.  But despite his international renown (he sold pieces to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and President Warren G. Harding) and his marriage to a white woman (he ultimate badge of racial privilege), he rarely left the area.  Instead, Clarke retreated into his Indian-ness, embracing explicitly native themes in his work, training young Blackfeet sculptors, and working closely with ethnographer John C. Ewers to capture the tribe’s traditional lifeways in a variety of artistic media.  His choices stand in marked contrast to those of his father and his aunt (among other family members), who worked hard to preserve their connections to both white and native society.  In eschewing the in-between existence of those who came before him, John L. Clarke, decided to walk in one world, not two.
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