“Cutting Capers on the Sands of North Africa”: A Soldier’s Art before, during, and after World War II

Today’s post was written by Jennifer Eltringham, a summer 2016 intern at the National Archives at Denver.

Albert Racine of the Blackfoot Tribe from Browning, Montana, enlisted in the U.S. Army in April of 1942, one day before his 35th birthday. When he left home to serve in World War II, however, he was not alone. He brought along a man with a mischievous grin, a large belly, and an even larger hat. Racine’s drawings of the Blackfeet figure Napi created a connection between Montana and troops overseas that resonated with the Blackfeet community in Browning and left an enduring mark. This juxtaposition between playfulness and seriousness would become characteristic of Racine’s legacy as an artist.

Albert Racine in Uniform (NAID 37489831).

Born in Browning in 1907, Racine attended Browning Public Schools before studying painting with the German artist Winold Reiss, known for his portraits of Native Americans. Racine’s work was first exhibited in 1927, and in 1938 he was commissioned to create wood carvings for the Browning Methodist Church, including this altar featuring a recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

The altar carved by Albert Racine for the Browning Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of Sheri Calvin of the Blackfeet United Methodist Parish.

It was Racine’s sketches of the Blackfoot figure Napi, however, that brought him recognition while he was serving with the U.S. Army in North Africa. He first developed an interest in Napi during his school days, when the students performed skits featuring Napi. In a document found at the National Archives at Denver and highlighted below, museum curator John C. Ewers described Racine’s depiction of Napi as the “gnarled, braided, little fellow with the broad grin.”

National Archives Identifier: 7329401

As Ewers notes, Napi went with Racine to North Africa, where he drew sketches of the figure in uniform to entertain his fellow soldiers and to send back to the local newspapers. F.H. McBride, the superintendent of the Blackfeet agency, mentions Racine’s drawings in a letter dated April 15, 1943, writing, “Corporal Albert Racine, a Blackfeet Indian now with the Army engineers in North Africa, recently sent a sketch of ‘Napi’ on his way to town with a dollar bill. ‘Napi’ is a local Indian Gremlin who became nationally known through Albert Racine’s cartoons.” Though from Ewers’ statement we might glean that Napi is more significant than an “Indian Gremlin,” the sketch was indeed printed in the Great Falls Tribune on April 4, 1943. The caption reads, “Cpl. Albert Racine, Blackfeet Indian now with the army engineers in North Africa, drew this pencil sketch to thank the Browning War Mothers for a dollar bill sent him recently. All members of the armed services from the Blackfeet Indians get a dollar and a letter once a month from the club. Racine’s cartoons usually are good for laughs, but he has done considerable serious art work as well.”

Napi in the Great Falls Tribune, April 4, 1943.

In an article published in the Billings Gazette on July, 7, 1971, Racine stated that after the war, “my nerves were shot. I was too shaky to paint.” But he returned to wood carving and became known as a notable carver throughout the west. For a few years beginning in the 1960s he operated the Blackfeet Indian and Western Art Gallery in St. Mary, Montana. His Napi drawings continue to appear on commercial signs and advertisements in Browning. Racine passed away in 1983.

To learn more about other service members featured in this collection, see previous profiles on Murray Williamson, Minnie Spottedwolf, and the Schildt brothers.  To learn more about Albert Racine and his art, see the resources used to research this post below.

In celebration of Veteran’s Day, NARA is holding a number of public events. For details check out NARA’s Veteran’s Day webpage, which includes links to resources, articles, blogs, exhibits, and events.

NARA Sources:

File: 600 – Military Activities July 1, 1937 (NAID 7329401) and File: 600 – Photo of Service Men – Blackfeet (NAID 7329402). Both are found in the Series: Decimal Correspondence, 1909 – 1957 (NAID 1677167), Department of the Interior. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Blackfeet Agency. 1947- , Record Group 75: Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1793 – 1999.

Electronic Army Serial Number Merged File, 1938-1946, (NAID 1263923) in the series: World War II Army Enlistment Records, 6/1/2002 – 9/30/2002, (NAID 604357); National Archives and Records Administration. Office of Records Services – Washington, DC. Modern Records Programs. Electronic and Special Media Records Services Division. (2/1/1998 – 7/31/2012); Record Group 64: Records of the National Archives and Records Administration, 1789 – ca. 2007. (Albert Racine’s military data – also available with online access to Fold3 or Ancestry.com).

McBride Letter and Memorandum on Napi. Box 63, Series: Decimal Correspondence, 1909 – 1957 (NAID 1677167), Department of the Interior. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Blackfeet Agency. 1947- , Record Group 75: Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1793 – 1999.

Additional References:

Ewers, John C. “Winold Reiss: His Portraits and Protégés.” Montana, the Magazine of Western History 21, no. 3 (1971): 44-55.

Hungry-Wolf, A. (2006). The Blackfoot Papers (176). Skookumchuck, British Columbia: The Good Medicine Cultural Foundation. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=sGtsbTEtcRIC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA176#v=onepage&q=albert%20racine&f=false

U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Arts and Crafts Board. (1974). Carvings by Albert Racine. Art and Artist Files in the Smithsonian Libraries Collections.

Wild Goose Island Carving Studio. Albert Batiste Racine.


2 thoughts on ““Cutting Capers on the Sands of North Africa”: A Soldier’s Art before, during, and after World War II

  1. Fantastic article. It gives a clear insight into the personality of Albert Racine and a part of the path that influenced his art.

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