Ella was born in what is now Slovakia in 1882. She came on a ship to the United States by herself at the age of 15. She married, had 2 children, got divorced, moved to California and lived until the age of 89. Somewhere in between all this, she went to Glacier National Park and posed for a photograph with some Native American men in front of their teepees. Now, I didn’t know Nana Ella, my great-great-grandmother, but this – Glacier National Park, teepees, Indians – is not something I would have guessed she did. And, in fact, the entire idea of this picture continually amazes me.
On second thought, though, I don’t know why this is really particularly surprising. Nana was not a boring person, though apparently she was obsessive-compulsive about things like mopping floors. My great-aunt Francine tells stories about Nana taking her to multiple double features in one day and persuading her, as a newlywed, to paint a wall in her first apartment purple. These are stories that don’t get told about uninteresting people, people who you would never suspect of taking a trip anywhere.
There is not even anything really that surprising about a 49-year old lady visiting Glacier National Park and having her picture taken there in 1931. The Many Glaciers Hotel, which the caption on the back of this photograph mentions, still exists. A hotel in the best tradition of grand old national park hotels, it was (is) part of a string of hotels and chalets built across the park in the 1910s, something that wouldn’t be out of the question for a 49-year old lady from Chicago to visit, even during the Depression. In fact, it was probably something pretty fashionable to do, and if Nana cared about anything, she cared about fashion and class. Then there are the Native Americans. It isn’t hard to imagine an encampment of teepees and Indians standing by near the hotels for photo opportunties with idle visitors from the east (and I’m hoping, a sizable tip from ladies like Nana). Today, even just teepees (and a chuckwagon breakfast) at Dornans in Grand Teton National Park draw a crowd fascinated with the notion of the west.
But still. Somehow, even though I know these things, Nana and the Indians never fail to, for lack of better words, completely blow my mind.