Native Americans

In honor of my latest acquisition for my collection (posted immediately below), I’m going to recap my 19th century Native American images collection.

The new image is a school class photo from Springfield, South Dakota. I find the image fascinating and remarkable by virtue of the racial diversity in the school group. Though the class is mostly Native American, there are white and African-American girls in the class as well. I think the teacher who inscribed the card on the verso is the woman in the center of the photograph.

Native American School Group, Springfield, South Dakota
Native American School Group, Springfield, South Dakota

The inscription reads: “With best wishes, Your loving teacher, Mary B. Benedict, North Walton, Delaware Co. New York. Alice & Lucy Cougar”. I’m assuming that Alice & Lucy Cougar are two of the Native American girls in the photo, but which two I’m not sure.

Native American by G.L. Eastman
Native American by G.L. Eastman
Native American and Friend,Klamath Falls, Oregon
Native American and Friend,Klamath Falls, Oregon

I’m not sure on the date on this one – it could well be early 20th century, but I’m including it because it is non-exploitative. If anything it is similar in spirit to the school class group in depicting interaction between Native and non-Native Americans in apparent social equality.

Two Native American Boys, Kearney, Nebraska
Two Native American Boys, Kearney, Nebraska
Rain-in-the-face, by Morse, San Francisco
Rain-in-the-face, by Morse, San Francisco
Black Star, an Osage Brave
Black Star, an Osage Brave
New Mexican Native Couple
New Mexican Native Couple
Ambrotype, Penobscot Boy, 1857
Ambrotype, Penobscot Boy, 1857

This last one is probably the oldest image of a Native American I own, and will most likely remain so, as images this old are quite rare. Most imagery of Native Americans is from the west and mid-west, as Native populations had been largely subsumed and/or eradicated from the east coast by the time photography arrived.

The other two “Art” photos of Native Americans I have are, albeit sympathetic, exploitative portrayals of Native American men in the line of “Noble Savage/Vanishing Tribe” imagery meant to play on the sympathies (and perhaps the subconscious erotic sentiments) of an Eastern, caucasian audience. The reason I say erotic sentiments is that they depict handsome young Native men wearing signals of exotic “nativeness” (headdress, jewelry), but little else. The signs of “nativeness” may or may not be any degree of authentic or relevant to the individual wearing them. The George Eastman photo here is heading that direction in that the costumery the subject wears may not be of any one particular tribe, much as Edward Curtis would do when he felt a photo needed a little something – he would hand his sitter some wardrobe accessory that they might never have otherwise worn and got them to don it for the picture. In that regard, photos like Curtis’ and Eastman’s work are not “documentary” in a strict sense, but they are often the only record that exists of a person or a culture, so they do have record value.

Navajo Brave, Grand Canyon, attributed to Karl Moon
Navajo Brave, Grand Canyon, attributed to Karl Moon
A Tewa Bowman, by W. Allen Cushman
A Tewa Bowman, by W. Allen Cushman

While the Carl Moon “Navajo Brave” may be wearing authentic Navajo jewelry, he’s not wearing much else, and the loincloth is not exactly practical daily wear. I could be wrong, but the “New Mexican Native Couple” image shows what I believe would have been far more typical attire for that region of the country. Native Americans may be blessed with a higher melanin content in their skin, but that’s still not a good reason to run around near naked all day at 5000′ elevation under a blazing sun.

The “Tewa Bowman” is another in the same vein – what little accoutrements he wears may be authentic or may not, but to the intended audience for the image it is irrelevant because they neither know nor care; the bow and feathered headdress point to “Indian-ness” and the comeliness and physical condition of the sitter make him “noble” in the same spirit of a Grecian marble nude.

These images leave a complicated, conflicted legacy. They purport to be records of a vanishing culture, yet the record they leave is at best fuzzy and at worst totally inaccurate. The 20th century “save the noble savages” images took the problematic record images one step further. By the dawn of the 20th century, there was a growing awareness in Anglo civilization that Native cultures and peoples were truly vanishing, and the attitude began to shift from approval of that fact to a sense of loss and a desire to intervene in that downward spiral. These “art” images fed a market for Anglos who had no first-hand knowledge of Native culture and felt some degree of racial guilt. Even if the base motivation was in the right place, the images exploited Native subjects to feed a market, wether through distortion of identity, sexual exploitation, or both.

2 thoughts on “Native Americans”

  1. How solemn people look in those old photos. I asked my grandmother about that years ago, because she had old photos from that era. She said people were told not to smile because they had to not move for a long time, and they could not hold a smile long enough.

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