Henry Farney. The Song of the Talking Wire (1904).

a painting

Henry Farney. The Song of the Talking Wire (1904).

By 1904 the sense of ennobling sorrow an American viewer

might have felt for the Vanishing American had turned, with

Native American population and fortunes at a nadir, into a form

of nostalgia, here captured by Henry Farney. This painting was,

according to Julie Schimmel, conceived during a visit by the

artist to Fort Yates in the Dakota Territory. Farney

"apparently observed an Indian named Long Day listening at a

telegraph pole so that he could tell fellow Indians that he had

heard spirit voices over the wires, thus proving his ability to

become a medicine man." [Carter, Farney, 33] Long Day uses the

tools of civilization to assist in the continuity of his own

culture. But Farney turns the scene around to illustrate the

Indian listening at the telegraph pole, as if for his own


"The telegraph wires symbolize white progress, which

dispossesses Indians of their culture," -the straight wire being

as it were the antithesis to the sacred hoop, willfully cleaving

the harmonious circle of nature. "Leaning against a telegraph

pole, the lone Indian is surrounded by death--the buffalo skull

and barren, snow-covered landscape. He carries the white man's

gun yet clings to his own traditions, wearing moccasins and

buffalo hide and living by the hunt, as suggested by the dead

deer hanging from his saddle. His inability to change will

finally defeat him."

Schimmel notes that Farney depicted Long Day incorrectly as

garbed in a robe actually "worn by females to celebrate puberty

rites." To the artist the mistake didn't matter; the cloak

signifies his tribal culture.

Reference: Julie Schimmel, "Inventing 'The Indian," in THE WEST


and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991, pp. 171-72,


Carter, Denny. Henry Farney. New York: Watson-Guptill for

Cincinnati Art Museum.