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A magazine of poetry and related arts straight from L.A.






Drawing: When I Was a Kid (detail)

Lummis "House Book" page








C. M. Russell, 1909









What Came First? The Image or the Word?

Charles M. Russell, October 23, 1907

The West According to Charlie Russell

Charlie Russell said good bye to his St. Louis family—who'd done their best by him but couldn't hold him down—and moved West just before his 16th birthday. It was 1880, and he was already in love with the West as he imagined it, but fell more deeply in love when his stage coach pulled into Helena, Montana, where dusty mule and bull teams, eight creatures strong, hauled wagons through the streets, and Indians in robes and leggings mixed with the townspeople.

After he'd gotten a little cow herding experience under his belt Russell lucked into a job at a Judith Basin County ranch. Years later some surviving ranch hands recollected how the a cowboy named True asked a cohort named Ed Older, "Say, know anything about the new night-herder?"

"I think it's Kid Russell."

"Who's Kid Russell?"

"Oh he's that kid that drew S.S. Hobson's ranch so real."

There's no telling what private collector now owns that impression of Hobson's ranch, but one thing's certain, if it ever again came up for auction—that or any other Russell artwork—one would have to be rich indeed to enter into the bidding.

Unlike Remington and other famous Western artists who never experienced the life firsthand, Russell did—so he didn't generalize about buffalos, horses. Folks used to say the way Charlie painted you could tell what a horse was thinking. And he didn't base his cowboys on pictures he'd seen by somebody else. He lived among the men and he did the same work, so he knew how it felt from the inside. Like Rhodes, though, he never really excelled at the job—at least not at the herd job.

Decades later biographers located an an old-timer named Kid Amby, who gave his recollection:

"He was no roughrider at all. Charlie was always afoot in the saddle when it came to real cowpunching. But don't get me wrong—he was one of the swellest guys I ever knew. Everybody liked Kid Russell. Sure, he wasn't even a good night-herder. About all he could do was tell stories and make little sketches of the funny things that happened. We'd hurry in at night, just to listen to his yarns and laugh at the pictures he drew. Nobody ever thought he'd amount to anything. But Charlie had lots of friends. And there wasn't a cattle outfit, big or small, that wouldn't hire him. He helped to keep us happy."

Russell struck up a friendship with a young Indian named "Sleeping Thunder" and through him became acquainted with many others in the Northwest Territory. He lived for a while among the Blackfoot Indians and learned their sign language, which allowed him to communicate with any of the Plains tribes. His wife Nancy would remember, "The Red Men of our Northwest love and think of Charlie as a kind of medicine man because he could draw them and their life so well."

All this would have no bearing on the history of early California and Los Angeles if Russell hadn't ventured farther west and found his way to El Alisal. Here Old Man Lummis hosted boisterous parties, which he called "noises," and the biggest noise took place in March to celebrate his birthday and all the birthdays of those born in March. He dubbed it "March Hare Day" after the expression "mad as a March Hare". Charlie Russell had come along on March 19, 1864—a fellow March Hare.

The musicians, naturalists, writers and poets who attended these couldn't get out of there without signing the "House Book". The artists were often inspired to contribute a painting along with a signature. (That very valuable book is now in the possession of The Southwest Museum.) Charlie Russell had taught himself to paint and draw, and despite certain idiosyncrasies of spelling (which I've left uncorrected), he seems to have taught himself to write, too. With less than a full high school education he shows up here as a brighter and livelier wordsmith than many educated people walking around today.

Silence! (R Rated)

Fifty three years after attending some "noises" and March Hare parties, the late Edith Kendall (then Edith Pla) reported her impression of what sort of madness took place.

Oh, Charlie Russell was there! He had such a sense of humor. His voice was low and rumbling, he sort of grunted, but he told his tales in Indian sign language, his wife interpreting. In the middle of a story he would make a certain sign and she would blush furiously, saying, "Charlie, I'm not going to say that." Wooden faced he would repeat the gesture. "Now Charlie, you stop. I won't say it and if you keep on talking like that I won't come here any more!"  

(from Charles Fletcher Lummis: The Man and His West, U. of Oklahoma Press, 1975, p. 163)



Russell's dedication in the Lummis "House Book"

Transcription below retains original (truly original!) spelling.

                                              March 10, 1920

Charles F. Lummis
       I have eaten and smoked in your camp
as our wild brothers would.     I call you Friend
Time onley changes the out side of things     it scars the rock
and snarles the tree but the heart inside is the same
In your youth you loved wild things     Time has taken them
and given you much you dont want.     Your body is here in
a highley civilized land but your heart lives on the back trails
that are grass grown ore plowed under     If the cogs of time would
slip back seventy winters you wouldent be long shedding to a
brich clout and moccasens - and insted of beeing holed up in
a man made valley  - you'd be trailing with a band of
Navajoes headed for the buffalo range
       I heap savy you caus thaird be another white Injun among the
Black feet Hunting hump backed cows
My brother when you come to my lodge the robe will be spread and the
pipe lit for you I have said it
              Your friend   CM Russell

When I Was a Kid (1905, detail)

Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach