Meadowlark Gallery: The Artist Biographies

William Standing

William Standing was born near the settlement of Oswego on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation on July 27, 1904. From an early age of six years, Standing reported that he had been drawing and modeling in clay.*1 His first attempt at a formal work was in 1916, when he was twelve years old. He produced pen and ink drawings from a photograph of how Wolf Point got its name.*2 William was one of the five Kiowa Indians who became special students at the University of Oklahoma under the guidance of Oscar Jacobson during the 1920's. His formal education began in the boarding school of the Presbyterian Mission at Wolf Point, the elementary schools of the Fort Peck reservation, and culminated at the Haskell Institute in Kansas from 1920 to 1924. After the Haskell Institute, he worked as an interior decorator in Kansas.*3

He was both a serious and humorous artist. Of his painting, Bill said, "I like to be what is called an independent artist and draw and paint what I see." When as a small, unruly child, William was in need of discipline, his mother drew the face of an evil spirit on the bottom of a pan and set it in a corner of the room to frighten her son so that he would behave. "I found the pan and erased the ugly face. With wood ashes, I drew a more kindly one," William recalled.

"When I visited the artist's father, Standing Rattle, some days after my arrival on the reservation, he told me of the Standings' descent from several of the most prominent tribal leaders of the early and middle nineteenth century. They traced their lineage back to Iron Arrow Point, chief of the Rock Band, who, in 1828, persuaded the powerful American Fur Company to build Fort Union, its most important trading post on the Upper Missouri, at the mouth of the Yellowstone River in the territory of his band. One of Iron Arrow Point's many children was The Light, a particular favorite of the traders and the first Assiniboin Indian to visit the Great Fathers in far off Washington in 1831-1832. George Catlin met The Light in St. Louis on his way eastward in the fall of 1831, and he traveled up the Missouri with him on his homeward journey the following spring. One of Catlin's best known paintings portrays The Light on his way to the nation's capital wearing a handsome feather bonnet, decorated buckskin shirt and leggings, and moccasins. The other half of that painting portrays The Light as he appeared during his return, attired in a high top hat, dark blue military uniform with epaulets and tight fitting boots, holding a fan in one hand and umbrella in the other and carrying two bottles of liquor in his back pockets. His return with numerous presents received from the whites and strange stories of the wonders he had seen in the white man's world, led to his denunciation as a liar and his death at the hands of a fellow tribesman. First to Fly, another of Iron Arrow Point's sons, represented his tribe at the great Fort Laramie Council in 1851 at the which the boundaries of the Indian tribes of the Upper Missouri were first defined by treaty."*4

Standing also credited the other side of his family as an uncle Lance had been a noted painter of tipis.

August "Gus" Knapp was a German who came to America in 1912 to visit his uncle Daniel who had a small trading post at Oswego. When his uncle died in 1923, August Knapp and James Long, an Assiniboin, purchased the post and operated it under the name of The Pioneer Store. In 1953, August Knapp told John Ewers*5 that he had obtained art supplies for William Standing and that many paintings were actually created in the store. Many paintings that we have examined often have labels on the back from the Glass Art Shop of Great Falls, Montana. Knapp encouraged Standing by purchasing many paintings from him over the years. Many paintings from the Knapp collection were exhibited at the Arts Club of Washington in 1931. Vice President Charles Curtis, a Kaw Indian, was photographed beside the artist. Later these paintings were exhibited at the Colonial Exhibition in Paris, France.

In the later 1930's and the early 1940's, the Federal Writers Project in Montana selected and employed an Indian on each of the state's reservations to research and to write an account of his own tribe. James Larpenteur Long was selected and his work was published under the title of "Land of Nakoda: The Story of the Assiniboine Indians" by the State Publishing Company in Helena, Montana, in 1942. It was reprinted under the editorship of Michael S. Kennedy with the new title "The Assiniboines: From The Accounts of the Old Ones Told to First Boy (James Larpenteur Long) by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1961. William Standing numerous pen and ink illustrations for the book.

According to one woman who worked as an artist during the WPA in Great Falls, she said that she knew William Standing and that one of her tasks was to clean his brushes. Standing was considered one of the star artists in the program. The woman further related, "He had been taken to Washington where he was presented to President Hoover with a grand headdress of eagle feathers." This was considered as being quite comical as the headdress was not Assiniboine. She paid Standing a week's pay of $4.50 for one of his paintings.

The following comes from an article in the Great Falls Tribune, June 28, 1931:

"Several weeks ago, William Standing, a young Assiniboine Indian from the Fort Peck reservation arrived in Great Falls with a bundle of paintings the product of his uncultured artistic efforts and presented himself before the management of the second annual art exhibit (1930) with the request that he be permitted to show his output along with those of the more finished artists whose works constituted the foundation of the exhibit.

The young Indian was practically unknown to the management and his paintings some of which were rather crude, gave evidence of the development of talent in their maker. The young man from the north prevailed upon the managers to permit the showing of his pictures and they were given ample space and recognition throughout the four days and nights of the showing.

Not only his pictures but Standing himself attracted much attention and the result was that he not only sold everything he had brought but he also received commissions for a number of paintings to be produced in the next few months."*6

"Standing is a full-blooded Assiniboine Indian, the son of Standing Bear. During his stay in Great Falls he made no attempt to draw attention to his Indian origin and was always neatly dressed in modest apparel of the modern style. He did not go to Great Falls under affluent circumstances and found it necessary soon after his arrival to obtain funds which he did immediately by selling one of his best paintings. This was purchased by Sid A. Willis for the Mint collection, and through this sale, Standing was able to finance himself for the remainder of his stay.

During the four days of the exhibition he disposed of the balance of the eight paintings he brought with him and in addition received order for sixteen or seventeen more. These orders together with a few obtained in the vicinity of his home in Oswego calls for about twenty pictures to be produced during the Spring and Summer."*7

Other collectors of his work in addition to Sid A. Willis, included Senator B. K. Wheeler, former Vice President Curtis, Annabel Edinger, and E. R. Blinn of Butte, Montana.*8

During the Depression years, William Standing did many pen and ink drawings, mainly humorous of both the white man and the Indian. The drawings were made into post cards and were sold widely which helped support him.

William was one of the five Kiowa Indians who became special students at the University of Oklahoma under the guidance of Oscar Jacobson during the 1920's. His formal education began in the boarding school of the Presbyterian Mission at Wolf Point, and culminated at the Haskell Institute in Kansas from 1920 to 1924.

During his lifetime, William Standing did not do traditional Assiniboin paintings but still preferred the name of "Fire Bear." "It makes no difference to me. If people want me to sign a name on pictures in white man's way and buy more that is all right. But I'd rather be Fire Bear."*9

William Standing lived in Oswego. Attached to his cabin, he had a sixteen foot by sixteen foot addition with three shelves on each of the three walls. He would mix up one color and go around the room applying that color as needed to each of the canvases on the shelves.

"At present he works for the Western Stationery Co. at Poplar, Montana, illustrating stationery with a western motif and making comic cards. In his spare time, Mr. Standing studies nature and his own people and looks to them for subject matter. His palette reflects his soul, and his soul relects his love for all living things."*10

William Standing died on June 27, 1951. Standing was killed in an auto accident out of Zortman, Montana, in the company of another Indian, when the car he was driving rolled over three times and crushed his skull.*11 "William Standing, noted Poplar Indian artist, was killed early Wednesday morning forty miles south of Malta when his automobile failed to make a turn on Highway 19. Killed with him was Mrs. Yolanda Fisher Buffalo."*12

A flash fire in January of 1956 at the home of his widow, Nancy, at Poplar, Montana, destroyed a collection of pictures (paintings) which was valued at $2,600.00.*13


*1. "Standing, Bill, 1904--" Montana Education, November 1947.

*2. "William Standing--'Fire Bear,'" Collection of writings of G. B. Porter to August Knapp; Montana Historical Society, Helena, Montana.

*3. "Indian Artist's Work Show, William Standing Exhibit Featured," The Montana Standard, Butte, Montana, November 17, 1940.

*4. "William Standing (1904-1951) Versatile Assiniboin Artist" by John C. Ewers; American Indian Art Magazine, Autumn, 1983.

*5. Ibid., page 57.

*6. "William Standing," Great Falls Tribune, June 28, 1931.

*7. Ibid.

*8. "Indian Artist's Work Show, William Standing Exhibit Featred," The Montana Standard, Butte, Montana, November 17, 1940.

*9. "Indian Painter's Work Tells Life of Red Man," Great Falls Tribune, September 22, 1957.

*10. "Standing, Bill, 1904--" Montana Education, November 1947.

*11. "Fire Bear" by Helen Clark, The Spokesman-Review, November 16, 1958.

*12. "Companion in Car is Victim of Accident," Poplar Standard, June 29, 1951.

*13. Culbertson Searchlight, January 5, 1956.

View high resolution images of works by William Standing when available.