Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Other Lives: Keith C. Seele

A couple of weeks ago I came across Amorette Diedericka Seele Ground. I'm not sure how I encountered it, but the name caught my eye.

Mary Scriver tells the story of a recent graduate of the high school on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana:
One took me totally by surprise: Amorette Diedericka Seele Ground. I wish I could send you the photo but they didn’t make it to the website, so I’ll try for a word picture. A young woman with a Mona Lisa smile and a perfect Plains Indian profile wearing a pristine classic Stetson, loose hair, long pendant earrings and a high-collared but sleeveless lavendar blouse. The collar is buttoned but the opening below is not. In the background is a strawstack. I do not know this girl, but I know her parents, Richard Ground who married Elsie Mad Plume, and I knew Diedericka Seele.

In the Sixties Diedericka and Keith Seele came every summer in their Mercedes and with their Boston Bull terrier, Sparky. They always stayed at Moyer’s motel which had rooms with kitchenettes. According to the Glacier Reporter of Aug. 22, 1957, Keith Seele was visiting and Chewing Black Bone named him “Sits in the Middle.” Ish-tut-sick-taupi, a real Indian name inherited from a real person. A few weeks later Gary Cooper was given the name “Chief Eagle Cloud,” a suitably Hollywood name.

Chewing Black Bone was one of the last old-time Indians, a man of rock-ribbed honor and independence and an important force in the shaping of early Blackfeet self-governance. He is the old man sitting down in Bob Scriver’s sculpture called “Transition.” Blinded by trachoma, he lived in a lodge and mended his own moccassins. Keith got to know him because he was “Ahku Pitsu” in the James Willard Schultz books, a close friend of Schultz who gave him many stories and shared adventures. Keith was a dedicated admirer of Schultz and edited “Blackfeet and Buffalo : Memories of Life among the Indians” which is a collection of short stories that hadn’t been been gathered up earlier. Schultz is buried not far from where Chewing Black Bone lived with his descendants, the Mad Plumes, on Two Medicine just past the old Holy Family Mission. The Mad Plumes are a rodeo family. The grave was originally unmarked and it remains hard to get to since it’s across an irrigation ditch and up a steep bluff. Keith was the one who finally arranged for a headstone. Sid Gustafson gets up there to pull weeds every spring.

Keith’s real lifework was as an Egyptologist. He was quite famous in that field, and charged with extracting as much information as possible from the area that would be flooded by the Aswan Dam. He had begun adult life as a missionary in Germany and while he was there, he found Diedericka. The pair took marriage as seriously as is possible, considering it sacred and dedicated.

Keith didn’t want Diedericka to have any children because if she did, he felt it would not be safe to take a child into the field so that she would have to stay at home with them -- and he couldn’t bear to be parted from her. For her, this was both a protection and a burden. But there was another element: she had a weak heart so child-bearing might have killed her. Nevertheless, a doctor explained to her that she must not hurry in life -- then she would be safe. She learned to walk with long, slow steps and got along fine. They generally lived on a boat of some kind in Egypt but during the university year, they lived near the Oriental Institute attached to the University of Chicago. Keith’s books, such as his revision of “When Egypt Ruled the East,” remains vital reading.

When Keith asked for permission to marry Diedericka in Germany, the matter was considered very carefully because the family knew, even before the wars, that she would probably not return and they would never see her again. When they agreed that Keith was promising and honorable, her mother and sisters made an album of photos and other things for her to take with her as a kind of “talismanic bundle” holding a little piece of home. They were right -- she never did see them again but there were many, many fond letters.

The couple spent many happy summer days with Chewing Black Bone and the Mad Plumes. They were happy for Elsie Mad Plume when she married Richard Ground because it united two families with old-time ties. Agnes Mad Plume and Mary Ground, carriers of the heritage as the women are, were formidable grandmothers. I knew them both, but not as closely as Diedericka did. When Keith died, Elsie and Richard invited her to come live with them as their honored ancestor. She didn’t do it, but it moved her deeply...
Read the rest, it's well worth it.

The Seele's summer sojourns in Montana are well know to old timers at the Oriental Institute. Some of them (i.e. us) were even aware that Keith Seele had edited Blackfeet and Buffalo : memories of life among the Indians, by James W Schultz. Needless to say, he is far more well-known at the OI for his years of labor on the Nubian rescue expedition (and see its published manifestation), and for his years as editor of the Journal of Near Eastern Studies from 1948 to 1971. Oral tradition at the Institute also had it that Seele had certain... "unorthodox" views about languages of Native Americans. In short, rumor had it that he believed that there was a connection between Native American languages and the ancient Egyptian language. I never made any attempt to verify this, I think I asked Bruce Williams and Bob Biggs their opinions on the matter, but I don't recall that either of them had any insight about this. So I tucked it away as a mere curiosity.

Until sometime in the 90s when I got a call at the Research Archives from an anthropologist, I think at Marquette University (perhaps she'll read this and verify what I remember not very well). She was in search of Keith Seele's papers. She was aware of his life in Montana and of his friendship with and adoption by Chewing Black Bone who had named him “Sits in the Middle.” Ish-tut-sick-taupi. She was also aware of his interest in the Blackfeet language and the fact that he was trained in Egyptian philology and epigraphy. She had heard that he had transcribed lengthy and detailed phonetic renderings of stories told to him by Chewing Black Bone, stories that remained part of the tradition by which had not been otherwise recorded by members of that older generation. She wondered if these transcriptions could be found, and told me that they would be a unique and highly important source for the language and culture of the Blackfeet, and a treasured repository of the community's culture.

I asked around, and was told that such papers did not appear to be among the Seele archive, and that in fact nothing of his summer life in Montana was among his papers. The anthropologist and I spoke again a couple of times but I never heard if these manuscripts had surfaced. In the mid-1990s papers from the estate of Diederika Millard Seele made there way into the Oriental Institute Archives. I imagine - I hope - the papers relating to this episode made there way into some accessible collection.

Does anyone know any more about this?

The bookplate of Keith Cedric Seele from Bookplates of Scholars in Ancient Studies

1 comment:

prairie mary said...

Chuck, your email address wouldn't open, so I'll respond this way. I'm so dazzled that this filament of the web connected so quickly! I've sent Amorette a copy of the post via snail mail, but it bounced and I had to re-send with her parents' names on the envelope.

I have a lively interest in Keith's papers. In fact, I poke along writing a novel about the widow of an anthropologist on the Blackfeet rez which is partly inspired by the Seeles.

Also, I have some photos of Keith -- none of Diedericka -- which I'd be happy to send along.

I talked about the Seeles in my bio of Bob Scriver, "Bronze Inside and Out," published by the U of Calgary Press and available at the online bookstores or by order from bookstores. Nothing quite beats the romance of sitting by the glowing coals of a campfire on Two Medicine River while listening to Keith tell stories he read in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Of course, they were mostly about camels. . .

Prairie Mary
(Mary Scriver
Valier, Montana)