August 19, 2019

Dr. Donald T. Matter, Jr.

My Search for the Assinaboine

The men of this tale were both avid postcard collectors. Jim, a Native American and professor of American, Canadian, and Native American history, lived in Montana. Don, a retired eye surgeon, lived in Arizona.

I am trying my best to finish a book I started many years ago – back when I still lived in New York.  I want to finish the book to present a copy to a dear and very old friend and fellow postcard enthusiast – his name is Jim Flaming Eagle and he lives on the Assinaboine Reservation at Fort Belknap in Harlem, Montana.

I felt that I needed a few more photographs to finish the book and I had heard that the Library of Congress has hundreds of pictures of the Assinaboine Tribe.  I bought a ticket from Phoenix to Washington; coach of course, but I still spent $655.   So what, I was on my way to the LOC!

It was a thrill walking into the Library of Congress knowing I would be allowed to use the same library that Senators Kyl and McCain.  Naturally I had to show a picture ID – no problem, I had one.  I worked my way through the steps and hallways to the photo libraries and with the help of about six librarians, I was “liberated” of the two ball-point pens I had in my shirt pocket and given two #2 Ticonderoga lead pencils to use instead, then I was asked to sit at a large mahogany table and I was given a pair of white cotton gloves to use.

After 2,524 miles, nearly seven hundred dollars spent and nineteen hours of travel, I was given the first of nine 9” x 12” acid-free storage boxes.  My heart was almost pounding. 

Glass Negative from Detroit Publishing, circa 1905

I removed the lid and the first photo I pulled from the box was an 8” x 10” black and white photo of a Native American girl dressed in traditional garb, standing next to a tepee with a fully-saddled pony tied to what may have been a roof-support post.

Wow, I thought.  This looks familiar.  I examined the photo-sleeve and found a title label:  “Irene Rock, an Assinaboine school girl at Fort Belknap. Circa 1905.”  That sounds familiar, I thought, but I didn’t remember why.  I continued to read from the label.  “From an 8” x 10” glass negative in the Detroit Publishing Company Photographic Collection #019792.  Donated to LOC, 1949, by State Historical Society of Colorado.”

11157 Irene Rock, Assinaboine

When I read the words Detroit Publishing Company, my eyes went wide, and I asked myself if I had just traveled across the country to look at black and white originals of Detroit postcards?  Much to my surprise the answer was, “Yes!”

Rattlesnake on guard

I looked at dozens, maybe hundreds of photos that day.  I made lists and took careful notes of what I saw.  I even ordered copies of some of the best pictures, which I received in the mail just three weeks after my visit to Washington. 

Also, I asked for and was graciously granted permission to use them in my book.  (The librarian told me there is no known copyright on any of the Detroit photographs.)

I should have stopped at the Russell Office Building to see Senator McCain. I wanted to tell him what a great library he has to work in, but I bet he never goes there.  I suspect he sends his staff to gather any information he needs.

Two of the other photos I found at the LOC that day last May were pictures of Assinaboine warriors. My favorite was of two young men, one named Horse Boy and the other Boy Chief, but another photo of a chief named Rattlesnake also caught my attention.

So do you want to hear my sad tale?  Yes, when I got home I found Horse Boy, Boy Chief and Rattlesnake in my collection of Detroit postcards. 

What makes my story even more interesting is that when I talked to Flaming Eagle about my adventure, he told me that he too has all three of the postcards in his collection.

Horse Boy and Boy Chief

I hope you learn something from this story. It was a costly adventure, but I would never call it a mistake. I wouldn’t trade that time in the Library of Congress for anything.

A tip to would be researchers: Leave your ball-point pens at home.

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