Fall 1994. Looking for a quiet place to eat my plate of food at an event at the American Indian Community House in New York City, I headed for a corner and found myself standing next to a striking older man. He was tall and slim, with a twinkle in his eyes, dressed in leather from head to toe. Not biker-leather. Not Hollywood-movie buckskin. He wore a handmade outfit with large pockets on the lower pant legs that he referred to as his saddle-bags, and a hat with a feather. He introduced himself as Spirit Eagle but the name badge he always wore proclaimed him to be a “Comanche Medicine Chief” from “N.W. Yellowstone/S.W. Plains Territory.” The details of that conversation escape me except for the moment when I burst out: “You should write a book about your life!” He gave me a look and a smile and said: “When you learn to write down what I said instead of what you think I said, I’ll talk to you.” That was the start of a friendship that lasted almost twenty years, with gaps because he was as difficult as he was fascinating.
Spirit Eagle told me many stories about his life but never mentioned his birth name, which I only learned after his death in 2012. He talked about his “designer name,” Le Gip; gave me a copy of his “ritual drumming” album cover; and showed me photographs including a large poster-size print of his “Sun Goddess” cocktail dress modeled by cover girl Anne Ste-Marie, and photos of himself as a dancer who was clearly grounded in Dunham (modern dance) technique. Over time I began to question his identity. He always answered with, “Comanches don’t like to be tracked.” This became part of our unspoken agreement: I asked questions and challenged him in conversation but never deployed my research skills to track him – until now.
Throughout our friendship, he referred to me as the “A. Nash Historical Society. In the early years, I understood this as gentle teasing, because I’m both a historian by profession and a historian of my own family, the guardian of materials that go back generations. Now I see this as a desire to preserve his legacy through the photographs, clothing, and personal items he kept under difficult circumstances. These artifacts need a good home. A major goal of this project is to demonstrate why his life and work are important enough to be archived in a museum.
To honor his mandate to present what he said, the website and catalog showcase the collection he curated over three decades: clothing he made and clothing he wore; photographs of others and of himself; and documentation that he kept in a portfolio. Some interpretation is needed for the general public but I have tried to be careful about what I know versus what I think I know. Each day brings new insight and understanding.
What’s missing are his personal qualities, known to those of us who were his friends in his later years. He was magical, mysterious, mischievous, and maddening. He loved to be social but was also fiercely protective of his privacy. Woe to anyone who spoke to him before he had his morning coffee! He could be manipulative and controlling; this project has made me see how he decided early on that I could be helpful to him, although the affection between us was real. Above all else he was devoted to his own creativity, always designing even if his only materials were empty cans, used wrapping paper, and orange juice containers.
He would have been delighted to know Elizabeth Pangburn, my collaborator, a designer and fashion historian who can read the stitches and cut of his garments the way others read textual archives. What Elizabeth is learning from the Le Gip era is helping her to better understand the leather chaps, chaleckos, and hats made “by and for” Spirit Eagle.
There are powerful continuities between Le Gip and Spirit Eagle that we are just beginning to understand. There are also continuities with the family histories and cultural influences that he rejected. We are moving “step by step,” as Spirit Eagle often instructed, to present his life and work in a responsible way.
University of Massachusetts Amherst