The well-known photographer Edward S. Curtis said about photographing Native Americans, “It has been the aim to picture all features of the Indian life and environment… Rather than being designed for mere embellishment, the photographs are each an illustration of
1. Although this quote is noble it, an Indian character or of some vital phase in his existence”
unfortunately, is not accurate. From the 1880s to the 1920s there have been agendas, conceptions and misrepresentations of Native Americans in photographs all over the United States, even in the works of notable photographers such as Curtis. During this period of Social Darwinism, colonization, and rampant racism, these pseudo-anthropologists took photographs in many cases of not what they saw, but of what they wanted to see. Surprisingly, as much as this topic has been studied, the manipulation and representation of Native American children in photographs from the 1880s-1920s has rarely been analyzed. This is disappointing because it is not only the adults, but also the children that are reflective of American cultural conceptions. It is the photographs of Native American children from the 1880s to the 1920s that directly reveal the concepts that non-Native Americans held about Native Americans.
Before directly analyzing photographs of Native American children there first has to be an understanding the photographers and what attitudes and perceptions of Native Americans they possessed. More often than not, the photographers were just that, photographers. This is
thespecially true for the end of the 19 century when non-professionals could take photographs of
2anything they desired due to the new photographic technology that emerged. Notable
photographers like Sumner W. Matteson and George Wharton James were individuals who had a personal interest in travel and photography that later developed and focused on Native
1 Edward S. Curtis, 1906. Christopher Cardozo, ed., Native Nations: First Americans as seen by Edward S.
Curtis (Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1993), 19.
2 Paula Richardson Fleming and Judith Lynn Luskey, Grand Endeavors of American Indian Photography
(Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 39.
Americans. Others were professionals commissioned by the government, travel agency workers, or those who had training and experience in studio photography. It was primarily in the 1920s that individuals with educational experience in cultural anthropology sought to photograph Native Americans, “…to present Indians in a pristine or „traditional‟ condition” as opposed to
3. It was by that time, however, that many Native collecting images from other photographers
Americans were either partially or fully assimilated into American culture, which changed the
4composition, subject matter and nature of the photographs greatly.
It is significant that these photographers were primarily not anthropologists because it is clear through the analysis of their photographs that they generally lacked the discipline of being the unobtrusive observer. Their photographs are either staged, repetitive of certain scenes and customs, manipulated or otherwise affected to either bring a certain artistic quality to the images to consciously convey a concept or ideal. As one commentator suggests, these photographs result in the, “dehumanized-stereotyped, simplified, romanticized or manipulated” Native
American, instead of the human Native American with a distinct cultural, religious and
5sociological background that happens to be different from other cultures. These types of
photographs serve not as a study of Native Americans and their culture, as the photographers claim they are, but rather they serve as a means to document what the photographer envisioned a Native American to be, whether it was someone who was wild and primitive, or someone who was exotic and different.
3 Tim Johnson, ed., Spirit Capture: Photographs from the National Museum of the American Indian
(Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), 92.
4 Rick Hill, “Images of Urban Native Americans: The Border Zones of Mixed Identities,” Journal of
American Culture 20, no. 1 (1996), 28.
5 Kelly Morris, “The Shadow Catchers,” The Lancet 352, no. 9138 (1998), 1480.
In the case of Native American photographs, whether children were directly manipulated or not, they served the most significant and revealing purposes in photographs from the 1880s to the 1920s. As overall symbols of innocence in this period, children were the “pure”, untouched,
uncorrupted example of what the photographer wanted to illustrate, even when considered subhuman. Also, children were less prolific to photograph, which made their images all the more special. It was because of these facts that a photograph of a child was generally more powerful in its conveyance than the photograph of an adult. This is a direct reflection of society at the time, which preferred to assimilate the children than the adults, case in point: Native American boarding schools
Since many Americans of the 1880s-1900s viewed Native Americans as being exotic and “other” than themselves, many of the photographs of Native American children represent that idea. Although many photographs of Native American children can be argued to be displaying something exotic and different, there is a significant style and method to the photographs that are distinguishable from the standard exotic-looking photographs. The main observable difference is the fact that the photographs are taken in studio settings just like the photographs of whites were at that time. Furthermore, the Native Americans are posed like whites but dressed in elaborate costumes. This is significant because the photographs compare and contrast how a Native American child looks compared to a non-Native American. The end result of these types of photographs is the instillation of the subconscious idea that a Native American is someone dressed in buckskins and other elaborate clothing. An extraordinary example of this is Figure 1. In this photograph, Katie is wearing clothing that is not only elaborate, but is also not showing any wear, which suggests that it was either an outfit for special occasions, or one made entirely for the photograph. Similarly she‟s holding a very fancy doll and standing on a decorative hide
that rests on top of a bear skin. To her right is an object from Western civilization, which is notably awkward in this photograph. The objects that touch Katie, the doll and the rug, are objects of Native American civilization, things that are decorative and exotic to Americans. The column is an object of Western civilization, also decorative, but strikingly plain and not worth being fully included in the photograph, except to offer a contrast. Normally, the column and other props such as a chair or table would be included in a photograph of a white girl of Katie‟s age, but because Katie is something exotic, it is only partially there to offer a decorative and simple contrast. This cultural compare and contrast through props and elaborate costumes
6illustrate the difference between what is “normal” and what is exotic.
Other examples of the exotic “other” child are less staged and more centered on the people and their costumes. In an untitled Blackfoot family portrait of Big Face Chief, the composition is very tight and all that can be seen is Big Face Chief on the left, his wife on the right, and his son in the middle standing on a chair in a costume more elaborate than either of the
7parents because of his standing as a minipoka or “outstanding child”. Although there is a
cultural significance to the son being dressed more ostentatiously than his parents, this photograph is still an example of using a child to portray how exotic and different Native Americans were to whites. The photographer could have easily taken a single photograph of Big Face Chief in an elaborate costume, but the image of a decorated child is more unique and memorable. In a way, the child serves as a mascot because of its innocence and its natural ability to appeal to the emotions of adults. Other photographs that are tightly focused in a studio setting and pose include boys in elaborate costumes and babies in cradleboards.
6 Tim Johnson, ed., Spirit Capture: Photographs from the National Museum of the American Indian
(Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), 146.
7 Paul M. Raczka, Untitled, as reproduced in The Editors of Time-Life Books, The American Indians:
Cycles of Life (Alexandria, VA: Time Life Books, 1994), 27.
In connection with the concept of the exotic “other”, there was an extreme attitude that visualized Native American children being as wild, savage and naked. In contrast with the posed, occasionally manipulated indoor photographs of the exotic child, the wild child was almost always outdoors, generally naked, and often dirty or involved in some outdoor activity. Figure 2 is an example of this. Not only are the children outside, naked and unkempt, they are also playing a game that likens them to animals. The photographer could have easily selected to photograph the children in other games or other poses, but instead chose to take a picture where all except two children are on all fours. Without knowledge of the photographer, himself, it can only be speculated based on the content of the photograph that this picture was taken to portray the wild Southwest or to cater to the insatiable desire for images of “primitives” and wild children. A less extreme example of the wild child stereotype can be found in the photograph
8. This photograph is more innocent, taken by Joseph Kossuth Dixon entitled “The Bathers”
although it still portrays naked children in the midst of nature without a care in the world. In this photograph, two boys wade in a stream, while a third sits in the water and a fourth sits back looking off into the distance partially on the rocky shore. With the composition of the photograph focused on the river and the surrounding woods, the children become part of the environment, as if the photograph featured animals at the stream.
Unfortunately, the concept of the wild, savage Native American child had other connotations when applied to young Native American girls. Instead of the animalistic nakedness
9of boys, naked girls came to symbolize uninhibited sexuality as well as wild primitiveness.
Native American women of the Victorian age were not ignorant of that conceptualization of
8 Joseph Kossuth Dixon, The Bathers, as reproduced in Paula Richardson Fleming and Judith Lynn Luskey,
Grand Endeavors of American Indian Photography (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 144.
9 Alexia Kosmider, “Strike a Euroamerican Pose: Ora Eddleman Reed‟s „Types of Indian Girls,‟” American Transcendental Quarterly 12, no. 2 (1998), 118.
Native American girls. One woman, Ora Eddelman Reed sought to counteract this representation by publishing a newspaper column entitled “Types of Indian Girls” that showed
Native American women indoors and modest. As expected, her column did not stop the sexualized photographs of Native American girls from being taken. One odd and disturbing example such a photograph is Figure 3. It is uncertain if the girl is covered in paint or if she has a skin condition. Irregardless, her skin matches the plaster and brick background which she faces. To her right her clothes can be seen on the floor, which illustrates that she does not walk around naked, and yet the photographer chose to display her naked. What is more surprising is that she is not even given a face. All the viewers of the photograph can look at is her naked backside. The outstanding double-standard of this photograph is that only prostitutes and “women of loose morals” would be photographed in a similar pose during the time period of the photograph. Yet somehow, the photographer was able to convince an average Native American girl into becoming undressed without any reservations about the modesty of the girl. This is typical of the wild child conceptualization being placed on Native American girls.
Another stereotype that was popular through the 1880s-1920s that was represented through photographs is the image of the Native American woman with a baby in a cradleboard, known as the “squaw with a papoose”. These photographs have a strong correlation with the perception of Native American women in non-Native American society. This probably originated with the romantic image of Sacagawea carrying her baby on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Native American children were significant in this cultural conceptualization because the “papooses” were the primary components of the idealization of the “squaw”. Without the “papoose”, a Native American woman was not a true “squaw”. Unmistakably these images are the most prevalent images featuring both women and infants. What is more surprising is that
they all generally look the same, regardless of tribal affiliation or photographer. Women are either in profile with the papoose on their back or facing forward with the papoose at their feet. Figure 4 shows an atypical “papoose” photograph, while Figure 5 shows the typical style. These
photographs illustrate how children were necessary to help convey a popular Native American stereotype. There were other photographs, however, that used Native American children to portray an entire concept, themselves.
Many photographs of the 1880s-1900s use Native American children to emphasize Social Darwinism and acculturation. These Social Darwinist photographs tend to portray the children as being wild and unkempt before being acculturated, and stoic and Victorian/Edwardian after acculturation. Many examples of these before and after photographs come from the notorious Indian boarding schools. One well known example titled, “Chiricahua Apaches Dressed in Native Garb as They Arrived from Ft. Marion, Florida Nov. 4 1883” shows a group of eleven unhappy, barefoot and eclectically dressed Apache children of roughly the same age, all with
10. Another photograph titled, “Chiricahua Apache Group Four Months after Arriving at long hair
Carlisle,” shows the same eleven children all dressed in American school uniforms with short
11hair and stoic faces. Those two photographs are the before and after examples. These photographs are used to directly illustrate the notion that Native American children had to be changed so that the future generations could become more acceptable in American society. Some photographs, however, were less straightforward and more sinister. The plain facial and profile photographs of Ada Brenninger [Figure 6], which were also taken at a boarding school,
10 J.N. Choate, Chiricahua Apaches Dressed in Native Garb as They Arrived from Ft. Marion, Florida Nov. 4 1883, as reproduced in Susan Bernardin et al. Trading Gazes: Euro-American Women Photographers and Native
North Americans, 1880-1940 (London: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 8.
11 J. N. Choate, Chiricahua Apache Group Four Months after Arriving at Carlisle, as reproduced in Susan
Bernardin et al. Trading Gazes: Euro-American Women Photographers and Native North Americans, 1880-1940
(London: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 9.
were used to illustrate the physical differences between races, which Social Darwinists believed
12. could explain or account for the perceived intelligence of Native Americans and others
Once the photographs of Native American children reached the 1910s to 1920s, the content changed from posed, elaborate, manipulated images to relaxed photographs of acculturated Native American children in varying situations that appear normal. This drastic change in subject content is a reflection of the new attitudes non-Native Americans held about Native Americans. Although stereotypes were still very popular, there was a realization that Native Americans were becoming more and more a part of American society and were looking less “Indian”. This can be speculated to be the final step in the idealization of the “vanishing race” concept, made notorious by photographers like Edward S. Curtis, where Native American
culture had appeared to vanish. Nonetheless, these photographs of Native American children are surprisingly prevalent during this period and are practically indistinguishable from photographs of other American ethnic groups during the same period. One photograph from 1918 titled, “Rappahanock men hauling fish nets” shows a young boy in profile dressed in standard cold weather fishermen‟s clothing hauling a net from a river while men in the background also handle
13holding the net while removing a large fish. In this photograph, the boy can hardly be
associated with Native Americans, even with the adults in the picture. No one in the picture looks ethnically or classically Native American, which is a drastic change from the photographs of previous decades. Furthermore, the child is engaged in an everyday activity with modern tools. Figures 7 and 8 are other examples of this type of photograph, except they were taken in
12 Tim Johnson, ed., Spirit Capture: Photographs from the National Museum of the American Indian
(Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), 157.
13 Frank G. Speck, Rappahanock men hauling fish nets, as reproduced in, Tim Johnson, ed., Spirit Capture:
Photographs from the National Museum of the American Indian (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998),
1928, a decade later. With these two photographs, one can observe that the individuals are not white, but cannot clearly determine that they are Native American. These photographs look like average Americans who happen to be not white. These photographs from the first two decades
th century are clearly completely different from the photographs of the previous decades. of the 20
After examining the progression of the photographs of Native American children, it can be said that when photographs were the popular visual media, they reflected American society‟s conceptualizations about Native Americans in the photographs of Native American children from the period of 1880 to 1920. The photographs start with concepts that are backwards and insulting, progress into the romanticized and end with the reality. The Native American child was the unfortunate tool to illustrate the exotic, the wild, the ideal and the critical. Only in the end of the timeline did the photographs actually reflect what existed and what was observable. This ending gave Native American children more of a sense of individuality and personal identity than the earlier photographs that made it hard for the viewer to understand that the subjects were human beings with real lives and not objects of curiosity or study.