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1907 Mary Schaffer-The Indian Madonna | by charissanewell
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1907 Mary Schaffer-The Indian Madonna

This photograph is from the book Trading Gazes, by Susan Bernardin, which was published in 2003. The photo was taken by Mary Schaffer in 1907 and is entitled The Indian Madonna. It is now in the archival collection of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, Alberta.


Mary Schaffer lived from 1861-1939. She was born into a wealthy Quaker family in Pennsylvania, and as a child was much more interested in the arts and traveling than school. A trip across Canada in 1889 established the turning point in Mary’s life. She met her future husband, doctor and botanist Charles Schaffer, and also fell in love with the Canadian mountains. After Charles’ death, Mary embarked on a series of explorations into the Canadian Rockies at a time when it was not thought proper for a woman to do so. Her most famous trips of 1907 and 1908 resulted in the rediscovery of Maligne Lake and the book Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies. She traveled about the Canadian Rockies in the areas that today are Banff and Jasper National Parks, camping with horses and taking photographs of the people and places she encountered. Mary eventually settled in Banff and there married her young guide Billy Warren.


This photo is of a Stoney woman and child that evokes a feeling of family and home, a mother and her child, in a way that seems to be warm and inviting. It also seems familiar and relatable because the way that the mother is protectively holding her child cuts across cultural boundaries. The little girl’s disinterest is understandable and recognizable as well. This is what I saw at first glance in this photograph, but a closer look reveals other layers to this picture. The title of it shows how Western and Christian cultural conceptions are being grafted onto the totally different culture of this Indian woman and her child. The photo also illustrates the mixture of these two cultures with the tipi and jewelry and then the checked dress and printed shirt. Unlike many of the photos that we have been looking at in class of Edward Curtis and others, this photo by Mary Schaffer does not try to hide the fact that the native people are living in an interracial contact zone, and instead of portraying the woman and her child as a romanticized vanishing race, shows the ‘truer’ version of the culturally destructive transformation caused by white settlement in the west.



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Taken on October 12, 2007