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Indians at the Post Office

Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

The Fur Traders

The Fur Traders by Elizabeth Lochrie
St. Anthony, Idaho Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

The Fur Traders by Elizabeth Lochrie
St. Anthony, Idaho Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Elizabeth Lochrie, born July 1, 1890 in Butte, Montana was the artist commissioned for the mural “The Fur Traders” located at the post office in the St. Anthony, Idaho.   At a very early age Elizabeth’s artistic talents were evident to her mother, May Davey, an accomplished musician and teacher, and made every effort to ensure her daughter had a good education.  Lochrie was also heavily influenced by her father Frank Davey, a civil engineer, who was adventurous in cultivating a personal relationship with area tribes like the Blackfeet,  Lochrie would inherit both parental traits.   Her formal artistic training began in 1903-1905 with Vonnie Owings, a local instructor who had studied in San Francisco and Chicago before returning to Deer Lodge, Montana to teach.  Upon graduation from the Pratt Art Institute in Brooklyn, NY, in 1911, Elizabeth returned home to Montana to teach art and raise her family.  Much of her early work consisted of commercial art for local publications, paintings of the never-ending mountainous terrain, and portraits of the Blackfeet tribal members she had come to revere.  Although classically trained while at the Pratt Institute, returning to Montana would allow her to break away from the restraints of popular styles and develop her own style  known as ’Regionalism,’ which focused on the common themes of industrial, social, and human development of the United States.  In her later years she would continue to paint portraits of Native Americans and become a sought after lecturer regarding tribal histories and recognized for her philanthropic efforts in defense of them until her death in 1981.

In the 1930’s, after already completing a series of murals commissioned by the State of Montana, she was invited by Department of Treasury to submit pieces of her work for inclusion in the WPA-era mural project, three of which are still on display in Idaho and Montana.  The mural The Fur Traders is representative of Idaho’s first permanent American fur trading post, Ft. Henry, was established in 1810 on the Snake River near St. Anthony’s, also the site of the first annual rendezvous between traders and Indians in the region. The painting reflects one of the most important and early scenes defining relationships between Native people and those from European cultures; trade and the convergence of cultures.  The main body of the painting is a scene familiar to the beginnings of the economic and social development of Idaho and Wyoming, focused on trade between the Natives American tribes in the area, most notably the Shoshone, and the mountain men or trappers.

The Snake River Watershed runs east and west through parts of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, and Washington throughout the Great Basin culture area providing the nomadic Shoshone with an extensive trade network of different tribal groups and non-Indian traders.  The Shoshone or “Snake” Indians were originally named for the shape of their riverine homelands and snake-like motion they made with their hand, representing the salmon in the river.  Salmon, made up a large part of their diet, this hand signal distinguished individual bands they belonged to.  The Shoshone have four different ways of differentiating themselves; the Agaidukas, the salmon eaters “lemhi Shoshone” of the Salmon/Snake River; the Pohgues, “People of the Sage” in the Fort Hall area and made up of Shoshone/Bannock mixed bloods; the Kogohues “Green River Shoshones” who are also mixed bloods, and the Tukadukas, or “sheep eaters,” who live in the mountains of the Teton and Yellowstone ranges. 

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 extended the U.S. land base to Idaho resulting in the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804-1806 in an effort to navigating navigate the Missouri River to Oregon Territory and the Pacific Ocean.  After the Lewis and Clark Expedition, other explorers like John Colter and Jedediah Smith came through the Teton and Yellowstone ranges opening the way for settlement across the mountain pass in the valleys of Fremont County, Idaho where St. Anthony is located.  The European demand for beaver fur top hats expanded the fur trade to the point of animal extinction in areas like the Snake River area.  The Treaty of 1818 opened British lands further into Oregon and Washington and exposed the territories for even more new economic opportunities of competing British and American interests.  The Hudson Bay Company was ordered by the British crown to send out brigades of trappers known as Snake River Brigades to exhaust the animal populations and use natural boundaries, like the Rocky Mountains, to serve as a buffer to dissuade people from moving and settling into newly opened territory.  By 1830s the demand for animal furs, beaver in particular, had dwindled in favor of the use of silk.  In Hudson Bay Company’s drive to monopolize trade in the area they either built or bought-out other traders establishing forts all along the western end of the Oregon Trail following the Snake River through Idaho and Shoshone homelands. Fort Hall was established after the prices and demand for animal furs had dwindled and would serve as the vehicle to centralize the tribe in one area thereby ending their nomadic way of life.

In the background you can see the Teton mountain range, located to the east of St. Anthony, Idaho reflecting the local geographies. From Lochrie’s point of view, the West was still a virtually untouched oasis full of wonder, adventure, and possibilities. Artist and author Geoffrey Norman says, “For it is true that art cannot be imposed on any people, but must evolve as an expression of its own life and work.  The artist will become an important influence in his community and will receive the support for his ability that he deserves, so long as he paints in terms that will stir the imagination of his public.”

The image of firearms, trinkets, and the Indian boy holding the blanket represents central theme of the two cultures experiencing change and cultural convergence through economics.  The tribes became more dependent on goods and began to move away from traditional aspects of their life through trade.  Native people were trading for items which were often more practical and durable like metal pots, pans and firearms.  There was much intermarriage between the traders and native women which strengthened access to trade goods and help in times need through family ties.  Intermingling of the cultures wasn’t always positive as traders would abuse and prostitute Native women, and the traders often carried diseases the Indians were not immune to like small pox and influenza, decimating a large percentage of tribal populations.  Over time traditional protocols and social structure were destroyed as tribal people became steadily influenced through trading and contact with non-Native cultures.

At the left of the painting, the counting of furs foretold of the future in the accumulation of wealth changing hands through trade.  During this period, furs were the most recognizable currency of the frontier.  Early trading wasn’t conducive to Native Americans being successful, as tribes had no concept of individual ownership or wealth.  They were trading their natural resources for things having no intrinsic value or positive use creating a new market for goods they couldn’t produce on their own.  The fur trade around St. Anthony’s consisted of beaver, but included grizzly bears, elk, wolverine, grey wolves, and mountain lions.  As successful as the fur trade was in Idaho and surrounding areas the need for furs and land expansion helped destroy the fragile ecosystem tribal people depended on for food and shelter.

At the right side of the painting, Lochrie portrays Native people performing ceremonial dances and living as their ancestors had done, something Lochrie had experienced in her childhood during her time with the Blackfeet.  She locates this in the background as a comment to of the fleeting past of the Indian through the artist’s eye.

At the same time the mural can be seen as a metaphor for the western United States as being wild and untamed.  The use of traders throughout the mural holding firearms and guarding their position clearly sets the tone of a situation that could change in a moment’s notice .The relationship between the Native people and traders was always one of uneasiness.  Smaller tribes like the Shoshone needed to trade for firearms to compete with larger, stronger Plains tribes like the Blackfeet and Sioux.

The Indians are holding and using more traditional types of weaponry represented by the quiver full of arrows and traditional “coup stick” versus the rifles and bullets, also giving a clue to the time frame portrayed.  In times of war it was considered an act of bravery and more honorable for Plains tribes to count “coup” on a person instead of killing them. By getting close enough to an enemy and touching him with a lance, a coup stick, the warrior could claim victory.  It was viewed as an honorable death to die in battle instead of reaching old age, therefore it was an insult to have purposely not been killed.  One could then tell the story in which his life was given to him.  Even though the Shoshone were originally from a Great Basin culture, trading brought influences from the Plateau and Great Plains areas. This becomes evident in their dress, customs, and nomadic nature, although still relying on the rivers for their primary food sources. 

Elizabeth Lochrie represented herself in the images with the use of blankets, most visibly the patch quilt located on the top of the blanket pile.  Lochrie’s granddaughter Betty writes, “At night while her husband read aloud from the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth worked on quilts, averaging about six a year.  These were for the Indians.  Many of the warm blankets were works of art themselves and were appreciated by Indian craftswomen who are equally talented.” With the imagery of the warm blanket made, Mrs. Lochrie not only displayed her personal connection to her Indian friends, but also as an artistic metaphor in showing her intent to protect their integrity and accuracy in something she created.

By Reuben Noah, Choctaw/Kickapoo/Iowa Nations


Sources:

Baerny, Sharon Long
1995 Public Art, Public History, Electronic Document,
//www.tfaoi.com/aa/3aa/3aa145.htm, accessed September 13, 2013.

Fremont County, Idaho
2010 History
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Idaho Museum of Natural History
Idaho History: 1800-1849, Electronic Document,
//imnh.isu.edu/digitalatlas/geog/historic/histtxt/1849.htm, accessed September 27, 2013.

Idaho Museum of Natural History
2005 The Peoples of Idaho:  Native Settlers, Electronic Document,
www.history.idaho.gov/.../uploads/pclub_fur_trapper.pdf, accessed September 27, 2013.

Idaho State Historical Society
Fur Trade Posts in Idaho, Electronic Document,
1970 Reference Series Number 62, October 1970.
history.idaho.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/reference.../0062.pdf, accessed October 5, 2013.

Idaho State Historical Society
Idaho Fur Trade, Electronic Document,
1973 Reference Series Number 444, June 1973.
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Idaho State Historical Society
Site Report: Henry’s Fork, Electronic Document,
1983 Reference Series Number 240.
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Snake River Basin, Electronic Document,
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Idaho State Historical Society
The Lemhi in Early Nineteenth Century, Electronic Document,
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Lohse, E.S.
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McGlynn, Lochrie-Hoag, Betty
2008 A Half Century of Paintings by Elizabeth Lochrie
//lochrie.doanehoag.com/html/biography.html, accessed September 3, 2013.

Northwest Power and Conservation Council
2004 Upper Snake, Headwaters, Closed Basin Sub-basins Plans, Electronic Document
//www.nwcouncil.org/media/120275/1IntroOverview.pdf, accessed October 5, 2013. 

O’Conner Francis, V, comp., Art for the Millions: Essays From the 1930s By Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973).

Trail Tribes
2012 Lemhi Shoshone Relationship with US -Fur Trade, Electronic Document
//www.trailtribes.org/lemhi/fur-trade.htm,  accessed September 27, 2013.

Trail Tribes
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