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Reactions: Bear Bull – Blackfoot

Curtis created this distinctive portrait of Bear Bull in 1926.

Bear Bull - Blackfoot

The North American Indian, portfolio 18, plate 640. 

In volume 18 of The North American Indian, Bear Bull is mentioned as “Kyaíyi-stamik, Bear Bull, also called Sótai-naa, Rain Chief, born 1859 between Battle river and Saskatchewan river.” He is referred to as an informant, which meant that he was a guide and translator for Curtis during his travels in Alberta. 

Mia Valley, from Valley Fine Art in Aspen, describes the details in this photograph: “The hair worn in this manner is very specific to the Blackfoot tribe. The elder men allow their hair to grow, and twist it in the same manner as the Assiniboines; but instead of forming the coil on the crown, they wear it on the forehead, projecting seven or eight inches in a huge knob, smeared with red earth.

Pictured in profile one can see the deep lines of a long life in his face. With a braided bun atop his forehead, he displays the ancient Blackfoot method of doing hair. The Blackfoot were fierce enemies, and this man likely has seen many battles.”

Curtis had a special talent for revealing the humanity of his subjects by portraying them in what may appear to be the simplest poses. In this case, Bear Bull is shown in a tight profile of his face that shows both the power of his traditions and his uniqueness as an individual.


Redfox, a member of the Pi-ikani Nation (formerly Piegan Nation) near Pincher Creek, Alberta, described his reaction to this portrait: 

The very first time I saw a picture of Bull Bear was in 2005, during our North American Indian days celebration in Browning, Montana. It was the famous photograph made by Edward S. Curtis in 1926 that forever immortalized a great healer among our tribe. In my eyes, this photograph captures pride, bravery, and even a certain aspect of melancholy. . . Bull Bear was a respected medicine man and warrior among our tribe many years ago. He kept his medicine in his topknot, so prominent in this photo. . . As a Blackfoot, I am grateful that Curtis recorded Sootnai-naa/Rain Chief’s noble likeness in this photograph and captured some of his extensive knowledge.


Quoted in Double Exposure (Seattle Art Museum, 2018), page 54.

Our Reactions series combines photographs and text from The North American Indian with reactions to those images and stories by Native Peoples today. See more Reactions here.

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