Four photo books with a Native focus
Four photography collections that turn the lens on the American Indian experience.
Lanterns on the Prairie: The Blackfeet Photographs of Walter McClintock
William McClintock was such an exasperating figure — self-styled ethnographer, theater impresario, relentless social striver — that even the essayists who contribute notes to this landmark collection of Blackfeet Indian photographs taken between 1903 and 1912 don't always know what to make of him. "His many field photographs are of great value, regardless of his motive for taking them … or the way in which he used them to promote his own career," writes editor Grafe.
The gritty images mostly present Blackfeet traditions re-created in annual Sun Dance encampments, but it's the photographer's unique worldview that provides subtext. McClintock was a restless soul whose cross-cultural mash-ups were ahead of the times. One example: His Blackfeet opera, produced by the Berlin Royal Opera in 1910, received disastrous reviews.
The book's title is drawn from McClintock's own pan-ethnic description of the illuminated Blackfeet settlement that graces the cover: "The tipis were lighted up by bright inside fires. The great circular encampment looked like an enormous group of Japanese lanterns." More than a century later, McClintock's mixed prairie vision burns brightly.
Faces from the Land: Twenty Years of Powwow Tradition
Exploding with elaborately ornamented costumes and heroic poses, this colorful coffee-table presentation of powwow dancers looks like a slick, updated rendition of the staged romanticism that characterized photographs of Native Americans popular around the turn of the 20th century. Closer inspection, however, reveals that contemporary powwow traditions — a pan-Indian phenomenon — have become central to the maintenance of tribal pride and identity.
The photos are technically impeccable, but equally compelling are the first-person blurbs from each subject testifying to the importance of powwow culture. Men tend to present themselves with war paint and tomahawks — a number of subjects are WWII or Vietnam veterans — by way of channeling the strength of their warrior forebears.
Female costumes often emphasize beauty, elegance, and the transformative power of ritual. Says one Ojibwe woman dressed in a magnificent buckskin dress: "It feels so good to be inside the Circle; I feel like a different person — like my body's been spiritually uplifted." The Marras, who have been chronicling powwows since 1988, artfully convey the same elevating emotion in this lavish collection of modern images.
To Walk in Beauty: A Navajo Family's Journey Home
On the surface, this moving photographic essay of a Navajo family's effort to reintroduce the tribal tradition of sheepherding into their lives appears to be the aesthetic and cultural opposite of Faces From the Land. In stark black-and-white, photographer Spragg-Braude finds beauty in the mundane details of a thoroughly contemporary Anglo-infused life. Mothers in tank tops hang family laundry in the back yard. Young men in hoodies and Adidas fix busted cars. Families lay out Kraft and Dr Pepper picnics in the beds of battered pickups. As one Navajo elder frankly admits, "Some kids nowadays are embarrassed to have a Navajo ceremony done on them."
But in tracing the story of the Begay family's effort to reclaim a nearly vanished tradition — the Navajo's ancient flocks of shaggy-haired Churro sheep were nearly eradicated by the U.S. government in an attempt to prevent overgrazing of lands in the Dust Bowl 1930s and '40s — this book also illuminates the healing power of tradition for an ancient people struggling for a modern identity. For those doing the work, raising livestock on windswept Arizona mesas is more backbreaking than romantic. But as the text and photos attest, pain and difficulty are often what imbue such jobs with deep and lasting meaning.
Buffalo Bill's Wild West Warriors: A Photographic History by Gertrude Käsebier
A number of turn-of-the-century photographers captured glimpses of vanishing Native American culture. An unusual photo from this collection culled from Smithsonian Institution archives, however, conveys a sense of the century ahead as clearly as it does the one about to pass. In 1898, sitting in the New York studio of renowned photographer Gertrude Käsebier, Sioux Indian Joe Black Fox strikes a wayward, angular pose with a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, almost grinning at the camera.
Though most of the images Käsebier captured of Native American performers in the Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show during it's run at Madison Square Garden reflect their subjects' "strong almost impenetrable reserve," this ironic portrait might just as easily have been taken in 1998 as in 1898, and displays Käsebier's enduring empathy with her subjects.
As a child who arrived in the Colorado Territory with her family in a covered wagon, Käsebier spent a lifetime infatuated with American Indian culture. "While Käsebier received some of the highest prices in the nation for photographic work, she often gave away the Sioux portraits to those individuals expressing a genuine interest in and appreciation for Native American culture," writes Smithsonian associate curator Michelle Delaney. This grand photographic essay is a worthy extension of that generous legacy.