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Peter VanDenBerg

Mountain Chief - Piegan, photographed by Edward S. Curtis and his great-grandson, Peter VanDenBerg,
by John Graybill for The Descendants Project (right)

Descendants photo © Curtis Legacy Foundation 2019

Peter VanDenBerg

 Blackfeet Nation of Montana

During a recent visit to the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, Montana, 51-year-old Peter VanDenBerg stepped into a bronze footprint of a legendary Native American chief and the fit was just right—for good reason. The impression belonged to Mountain Chief (1848-1942), and Peter is his great-grandson. In 1930, Mountain Chief attended the Plains Indian Sign Language Conference along with several other prominent chiefs. Sign language was primarily used for intertribal communications because the number of Plains tribes (and therefore diverse languages) increased during the 18th and 19th centuries. The conference was held to film the “sign-talkers” for posterity. The bronze footprints are embedded in a monument marking the occasion.

 

Peter, who is a member of the Blackfeet tribe, feels a sense of pride when he views photographs of his great-grandfather, but there is also a profound sense of loss. “Now that I am older and I see him, I think, ‘Oh, that’s my grandpa.’ What they [chiefs] seen, their life taken away from them, you know, in just a few years…. I just wonder how they felt…with what they witnessed. The sense of loss they felt. I think it still plays on everyone today. We all have a sense of loss, all our people.” 

Today, Peter lives on 80 acres within the Blackfeet Indian Reservation with a distant view of Glacier National Park. Although the view is nice, there is a palpable feeling of hardship when he talks about life on the reservation. “Life is hard here on the res….it is a struggle for a lot of people here: food, health care, clothes, everything…. Much tragedy goes on around here too, heartbreak, loss, a lot of grief.” Peter feels strongly that his people are not being treated equally. He longs for “more help for my people like they need and deserve, respect. This country ain’t fair. There is enough land in this country for everyone to share. No one should be hungry.”

Remarkably, despite all the hardships, Peter is nearing completion of a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the University of Montana at Missoula. He enjoys photography, sculpture, block-printing, and painting; in fact, he painted a picture of Mountain Chief “standing outside his teepee in his buffalo robe.” Peter is proud of his educational accomplishments, and rightfully so. “I have 12 more credits left, 3 more classes and I will be done. Pretty good for someone who didn’t graduate high school.” 

 by Dr. Shawn Pohlman

Your donation for this project will go to the Curtis Legacy Foundation.

© 2020 by  The Curtis Legacy Foundation
 

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