Charles M. Russell (1864–1926)
The Medicine Man, 1908
Oil on canvas
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection
“The Medicine Man I consider one of the best pieces of my work and these few words may give you some idea of the meaning of the picture,” Russell wrote in 1908 to the painting’s first owner, Willis Sharpe Kilmer. “The medicine man among the Plains Indians often had more to do with the movements of his people than the chief, and he is supposed to have the power to speak with the spirits and the animals. This painting represents a band of Blackfeet Indians with their medicine man in the foreground. The landscape was taken from a sketch I made on Lone Tree Creek in the Judith Basin, and I remember when this was game country. The mountain range in the background is the Highwood, with Haystack and Steamboat Buttes to the right. The Blackfeet once claimed all the country from Saskatchewan south to the Yellowstone, and one of their favorite hunting grounds was the Judith Basin. This country today is fenced and settled by ranchmen and farmers with nothing but a few deep-worn trails where once walked the buffalo; but I am glad, Mr. Kilmer, I knew it before nature’s enemy the white man invaded and marred its beauty.” Russell shows the Blackfoot moving down into the basin in early spring, when patches of snow can still be seen upon the ground. The medicine man is a striking, regal figure; he wears a pronghorn medicine pendant around his neck, and white ermine skins and a medallion made from the feathers of a prairie chicken adorn his head. He carries the ceremonial crooked lance to mark his station, and a decorated buffalo robe lies across his saddle. The warrior riding behind him to the left wears a hooded coat made from a Hudson’s Bay Company trade blanket, while to the right a woman carries a tipi cover over a horse travois.