It’s an unlikely place to find an art gallery—one block off U.S. Highway 2 in East Glacier Park, across the street from Blondie’s Casino, in the old post office, with green-painted sheets of plywood bolted over the windows and “Double Runner Gallery” stenciled on the wood in bright yellow.
Inside, the floors are a light, clean, hard wood, and the walls are lined with landscape photographs reminiscent of the work of Ansel Adams, only in color. Like the gallery itself, these photographs contain more than what’s evident at first glance.
The 96 images hanging in the Double Runner represent two years of work for photographer Tracey Vivar and her Blackfeet collaborator, Larry Reevis. Vivar, a native New Yorker and former commercial photographer for Marlboro and NASCAR, began visiting Montana 15 years ago to learn about the land and its residents. While traveling Montana’s summer powwow circuit, she befriended Larry Reevis, a member of the Blackfeet tribe who had worked with his brother, Paul Reevis, to open an exhibit based on Larry’s book, Unification, at Great Falls’ Paris Gibson Square Museum. Two years ago, Vivar and Larry Reevis teamed up and began working on a series of photographs that developed into The Hidden Kingdom, the exhibit now filling most of the Double Runner.
The exhibit takes its name from Wilderness Kingdom, a book written by Jesuit priest Nicholas Point about his experiences in Blackfeet territory between 1840 and 1847. The book, according to Reevis, shows a culture isolated in a territory that stretched from what are now known as the Judith and Snowy Mountains in the east, the Rockies in the west, the Saskatchewan River to the north and the Yellowstone River to the south.
“This [landscape] was the physical barrier to the outside world,” Reevis says. “Once you came inside these mountains, you were in Blackfeet territory.”
Vivar and Reevis attempt to uncover historical Blackfeet lands and culture in their work. Reevis showed Vivar the boundaries and landmarks of the Blackfeet land as he remembered them from oral histories passed down from his great-grandfather, Charlie Crow Chief Reevis, to his grandfather, Jim Reevis, Sr.
Vivar photographed the sites, which, she said, she never would have found, or thought to shoot, without Reevis’ help.
Reevis then gave titles to the photographs, connecting the sites to their stories, and to greater meaning.
Ahwonahksa, or Rattle Butte, is the name the Blackfeet gave to what is now known as Square Butte, near Great Falls. Each photograph in this exhibit, which covers most of the pre-colonial Blackfeet territory, is titled with its Blackfeet name, the translated name and the colonial name. Puhtomoksi Kimiks became Lakes Inside and is now St. Mary’s Lake; Itsiskiotsop was translated to It Crushed Them Creek and is now Armell Creek; Ponoka Isisakta turned into the Elk River and is now the Yellowstone River.
Taken separately, each photograph and its names tell a story.
For instance, Ahwonahksa (Rattle Butte) was likely a reference to the religious importance of the site. Rattles are often used in religious ceremonies or in prayer.
But the place Europeans named Square Butte was also where the first U.S. Agency was located in Blackfeet territory. This marked a breech in the territory’s isolation, and the start of a new age, ending the Blackfeet way of life as the agency schools began teaching the tribe’s children European ways.
“In 15 years we had to learn 5,000 years of history,” Reevis says.
In modern times, the land around Awonahksa is occupied by the New Haven Hutterite colony. The view from whence Vivar took the photograph of this site would normally be cluttered with telephone wires, homes and grain silos. But Vivar digitally removed these symbols of contemporary Square Butte, bringing the story full circle, back to Awonahksa.
Reevis and Vivar add that the story told by the photographs is also one of beauty. It’s an important contrast, they say, to the one-sided portrayal of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration and the way American Indians and the Blackfeet have been portrayed in modern media.
“Alcoholism, unemployment, everything that could degrade a society, that’s what they cover,” Reevis says. “We know all that exists, but we also see with our own eyes the beauty. We know the struggles, we see the struggles, but we also see the beauty.”
The Hidden Kingdom is an ongoing display at The Double Runner Gallery, located at 34 Dawson St., East Glacier Park. The gallery can be found online at www. doublerunner.com.