Real Indians and historic weeds 

To get a feel for the real substance of what it means to be Native American in this country, the last place you should look is the media. Larded as it is with crying roadside warriors and grinning-idiot sports logos, our culture is practically bankrupt of honest Native depictions. That’s why our Media Watch Department found it striking that a new generation of Indian image has shown itself lately, and at its center are members of many of Montana’s tribes.

This spring, the American Indian College Fund, the Denver-based clearinghouse for Native American college scholarships, launched a new advertising campaign to promote its services. And in the process, it took the opportunity to revamp what the average white consumer may consider when he or she thinks of today’s Native American.

“We know in this business that there are a lot of stereotypes,” says the Fund’s assistant director for media Suzette Brewer. “It seems like they’re either the drunk, broken-down reservation Indian or a romanticized Indian. We want to portray Indians as we know them to be.”

The result was a spate of print ads begun this March all bearing the same slogan: “Have you ever seen a real Indian?” And front and center in three of the ads are real Montana Natives: MSU biology student Carly Kipp, Fort Peck counselor and business student Jarett Medicine Elk, and Crow filmmaker Dean Bear Claw. Models for the campaign, Brewer explains, were found among Students of the Year at many of the nation’s tribal colleges, as well as within professional ranks that feature Native Americans of note.

The ads are slated to run through the year, in publications including The New York Times and Atlantic Monthly.

What do Missoula’s hillsides and the blue faces depicted in the 13th century Scotland of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart have in common? Dyer’s woad, a member of the mustard family considered a noxious weed in Missoula and several other counties in Montana.

A native of southeastern Europe, the plant produces a rich, dark blue pigment that made it a valuable commodity on the continent and in the British Isles since megalithic times. The Picts and Celtic peoples, who extracted the active property of the plant through repeated fermenting and drying, mixed it with fat and applied it for ritual purposes, often before going into battle. For Pictic warriors, the blue paint served a dual purpose: It made them look mightily fierce, and the astringent properties of the plant helped stanch the flow of blood from wounds. The most readily available source of ammonia for “fixing” the dye—horse urine—must have given their woolly ranks an intimidating stench as well.

Woad made its way to America either as a cultivated dyestuff or a crop seed contaminant. In the West, it out-competes many native plants for nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and water. Sheep don’t like it much; some biological controls have proven mildly successful, but the most effective method of suppressing it is still hand-pulling. So bring all of this arcane knowledge to Mt. Sentinel this Tuesday, when local weed-haters will meet for a dyer’s woad pull at 7 p.m. Pickers should meet at the trailhead. Horse urine will not be provided.

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