This art piece is inspired by one of the oldest pictures of a human and a monarch butterfly (1883-1886) and one that stands out as a colonial archive and proof of a non-Western form of valuing monarchs.
the Butterfly Picture (the picture that inspired this piece of art) was auctioned (in March 2018) with a starting price of 13,000 USD. One hundred and fifty years ago, the “captured Sitting Bull” with a pinned-monarch hat was an object for legitimizing settler power. The fact that today that objectification is fetishized as a precious commodity tells us much about what remains to be done to restitute indigenous rights upon North American land.
The story behind the original photo, and the art piece, is powerful: The person shown here is Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, more commonly known by his Western name, Sitting Bull (1831-1890), and he is wearing a British hat with a pinned monarch wing on it. Tȟatȟáŋka was a chief and spiritual leader of the Lakota tribe who organized the unified Sioux resistance against settler colonialism in the Great Plains area, mainly in the regions today known as North Dakota and Minnesota, between 1867 and 1890. Shortly after his first successful battles (1868-1876), he sought refuge in the Northern territories (today’s Canada) to avoid imprisonment. His political exile ended when Tȟatȟáŋka returned to his homeland, by then the Standing Rock Reservation, as a prisoner but under pardon in 1881.
Some sources claim that the picture, dated 1883, was taken during those years as a prisoner in Standing Rock. Other experts argue, and I agree with this version, that the Butterfly Picture must have been taken after 1885, because he is wearing a settler-style hat. These collectors and experts on Tȟatȟáŋka’s trajectory assert the photo was taken after Tȟatȟáŋka toured in the summer and fall of 1885 with William F. Cody’s Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which exhibited the “Indian way of life” through performances.
Although it was only for one season, it is suggested that Buffalo Bill’s hiring of Tȟatȟáŋka (Bank 2011, 150), already well-known for his resistance and pardon, was key in converting W.F. Cody into the most famous and infamous show–business man and constructor of the American Wild West imaginary. There are statements that, following this, Lakota Indians became “the most prized Show Indians” (Bank 2011, 150) but this is a glossed truth, as for Tȟatȟáŋka and those of his tribe their participation in the show is demonstrative of their doomed situation and represents the role of poverty and hunger in pushing indigenous people to take paid off-reservation jobs.
Tȟatȟáŋka left the show in the same summer of 1885 and it is suggested that the hat, not the butterfly, was a goodbye ‘present’ from Cody himself. The return as a prisoner to Standing Rock marks Tȟatȟáŋka’s shift from a straight forward offense to settler colonialism to an inter-tribal spiritual resistance. The Ghost Dance, a ceremony meant to reunite the tribes against colonizers was performed at Standing Rock and it sparked new fears and anxieties among settlers, triggering an even more aggressive retaliation that violently halted the nascent movement. Tȟatȟáŋka was then assassinated by the federal army inside Standing Rock Reservation in an attempt to re-capture him.
Tȟatȟáŋka’s Butterfly Picture is actually one of the last ones taken of the leader and although it is hard to track who placed the monarch on the hat, there is plenty of evidence regarding how, in Amerindian cultures, animals are a source of power. For Great Plains Native Americans, butterflies are believed to bestow those wearing them with endurance (D'Ooge 1994) and are seen as carriers of the spirit of good dreams (Dempsey 1986). Sighting or catching a butterfly is believed to attract good luck (Schultz, J.W. 1980). It is not too much of an assumption to argue that the butterfly is pinned to that hat to bring one or all of those attributes.
Like Tȟatȟáŋka, many other Amerindian chiefs wear animal parts to become one with the animal to obtain the type of potency associated with it. Deleuze and Guattari themselves (1987) borrow the idea of “becoming animal,” from these Amerindian practices. The photo simultaneously captures the colonialist gaze attempting to objectivize through exoticism, but it also lets us grasp indigenous endurance and non-western understandings of nature’s potency through the subtly present butterfly wing.
I take the gesture of pinning that butterfly on Tȟatȟáŋka’s hat during his journey to Standing Rock with serious commitment to the knowledge and practices behind that subtle act, practices that have remained unsought by conservation experts in this corridor as objectification of indigeneity persists to the day.