rejecting the metal shield
fort mackenzie, 1835
2010, oil, 46"h x 72"w
In 1831 Kenneth MacKenzie of the American Fur Company succeeding in negotiating an agreement for trade and peace with a delegation of chiefs from the Blackfeet tribe and Fort Union. The Blackfoot Treaty opened the doors to the perniciously guarded realm of the Blackfeet of the Upper Missouri River region for the first time. The area was vast and rich in watersheds, mountains, and game. By 1832, steamboats were servicing the flow of trade goods up the rider, and rich furs down the river, fro Fort Union and the newly completed Fort MacKenzie. With two forts on the Missouri, and Fort Cass at the mouth of the Bighorn River on the Yellowstone, the American Fur Company had monopolized the Indian trade within the richest beaver country in the land. The supply of a prodigious inventory of valued trade goods was an important part of maintaining a strong trade exchange. These included metal weapons and tools, powder and ball, woolen fabrics, beads, and all manner of glittering extras. One trade item that failed to win over an Indian psyche, far more powerful than heavy metal encumbrances.
Three symbolic elements are important to the story portrayed here. The first is the pipe and tobacco bag lying near the left boot of the chief trader. The initial act of passing the pipe between trader and chief created the proper climate for peaceful trade to begin. The second element is the liquor jug at the left foot of the head chief inspecting a shield. After smoking the pipe and establishing a sense of trust and friendship, gifts were given along with a good measure of alcohol. Finally, and almost without the Indian's notice, the American flag is hoisted up the fort's mast. This act symbolizes the sovereignty that would be gradually lost by the American Indians and gained by the American expansion.