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"Spirit Capture: Native Americans and the Photographic Image"

The National Museum of the American Indian
One Bowling Green
New York, New York

Through July 21, 2002

GERONIMO! Geronimo?

Catalogue cover

"Spirit Capture" catalogue cover

By John D. Delmar

Who is an Indian?

What is an Indian?

What does an Indian look like?

Who decides?

The National Museum of the American Indian asks provocative questions. In the current show, "Spirit Capture: Native Americans
and the Photographic Image," the curators draw upon an incomparable collection of over 125,000 photographic images to answer some questions and raise others.

Our perception of Indians or Native Americans (most native peoples prefer to be known by their tribal designation, but "Indians" is an acceptable term) is shaped by thousands of images of various tribal peoples: from beautiful sepia photographic images by Curtis to tawdry Wild West show posters, from cheap tourist post-cards to dry anthropological or ethnographic studies, from Cowboy and Indian Western movies to souvenirs sold at expositions. This exhibit attempts to sample all these various genres and media to discover the stereotypical "Indian."

Crow Dog (Lakota, Brulé band) and his family, 1891

Crow Dog (Lakota, Brulé band) and his family, 16 January 1891. Near Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Photo by John C. H. Grabill. Gen. Nelson A. Miles Collection. Presented by Maj. Sherman Miles and Mrs. Samuel Reber

And the curators (one of whom, Richard Hill, Jr., is a Tuscarora) have a distict perspective and a point of view: they didn't just randomly choose 200 pictures from the 125,000 (although that might make for an interesting show-- pick 200 pictures with a blindfold-- what do they tell you?) The wall captions and descriptions let one "see" what one might not ordinarily see.

Museums with windy, didactic labels can often be tedious. Most viewers don't want to be lectured, and can wait until Sunday morning for their sermons. Pages of text "explaining" a picture are like having a bore explain why his jokes should be funny. But this exhibit, while a bit didactic and politically correct, makes one think. We are asked: "What are you looking at?" "Who is in this picture?" "Who took the picture, and why?" "Is this an accurate picture of this individual or this culture?"

Portrait of Goyathlay (Geronimo) Goyathlay (Geronimo)
Portraits of Goyathlay (Geronimo), Chiricahua Apache, 1887, left photo by A. Frank Randall or G. Ben Wittick, Gen. Nelson A. Miles Collection, Presented by Maj. Sherman Miles and Mrs. Samuel Reber; right photo probably by Frank A. Rinehart

Our assuption is that photographs don't lie. But do they? On the wall is a well-known picture of Geronimo, grimacing, looking fierce, brandishing a rifle. The exhibit notes that the photograph depicts a Chiricahua Apache named Goyathlay (which subsequently morphed into "Geronimo"). It was taken by a non-Indian, A. Frank Randall, in 1887, and reinforces the narrow perspective of non-native observers of that era: Indians were fierce savages. A quote from the respectible The New York Times regarding Geronimo approvingly repeats the slogan of the West: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian," and describes this Apache leader as "the worst type of aboriginal savage." But other contemporaneous photographs depict Geronimo as a rather peaceable gentleman.

Blood medicine woman, circa 1900, Calgary

Blood medicine woman, Calgary, circa 1900, photo by Harry Pollard

The exhibit points out that native peoples were not above using non-native perceptions and misconceptions to their advantage. Folks back East were curious about the Wild West. So natives dressed up for the part, worked in Wild West shows, added lots of feathers and beads and headdresses, whether authentic or not. Geronimo himself was a crafty businessman, selling his own "fierce" picture for 25 cents, signing his autograph on it for an additional fee. It may have been demeaning for a proud leader-- but it helped feed his family.

The show states: "There are three parties to every photograph: photographer, subject and viewer." By viewing, we are drawn into this triangle. What preconceived notions do we bring to viewing? And what were the agendas of the journalists, soldiers, tourists and anthropologists who took these pictures? And who were these subjects?

James Mye (Maspee)

James Mye (Mashpee), Cape Cod, Massachusetts

The pictures themselves are wonderful and original. One proud Mashpee of Cape Cod looks very dignified in his daguerreotype, wearing a Lincolnesque top-hat and formal suit. No feathers, no war-paint, no tomahawk.

Oto delegation to Washington, 1881

Oto delegation to Washington, D.C. January, 1881, seated from left, Standing Eating, Baptiste Deroin and Harikara (Standing Buck), standing from left, Crawfish Maker and James Arkeketah, photo by John K. Hillers

Other pictures show delegations of Indian leaders who had come to Washington to discuss treaties. These neutral pictures take on a more sinister cast when we are informed that these photos provided "military and civil authorities with visual records that could be used to identify potential troublemakers."

Another section deals with anthropologists, who wished to study indigenous peoples and their cultures. Much of their work was extremely useful, presenting a record of an entire continent of diverse individuals whose way of life would soon vanish. But again, these depictions cannot always be viewed as simply an objective record. The curators note that Indians were sometimes "coerced or forced to pose." Their privacy was rarely honored (how would you like some strangers marching into your home, posing your children, rummaging through your belongings?) When we as viewers are aware of the pain of these subjects, it is as if we are trying to enjoy a cheesecake pin-up, knowing the model has been kidnapped against her will.

And then there is the image of The Noble Savage. I recall Westerns in my youth that featured two flavors of Indian: the noble, strong, mostly silent Tonto, wise in the ways of nature (and why was he helping The Lone Ranger, anyway?) Or the numerous savages intent upon scalping the poor pioneers, and taking the settlers' womenfolk off for a fate worse than death. These sterotypes are represented by films of early Westerns, showing the natives riding off into the landscape, as well as showing Indians depicted at fairs, shows and expositions. Again, the natives went along with the deceptions, striking "Indian poses" when necessary.

The conflict between reality and image is apparent from two postcards distributed at the exhibit: One shows smiling "Seminole Indian Girls Stringing Beads." This card has the touched up phoniness of early Soviet posters of "happy farmers in the fields." A companion card, with the designation "what tourists didn't see," shows a Seminole family, rather pathetic and weary, gathering around an old automobile.

We are also shown photos of Indians by Indians. Most are rather bland. There aren't a lot of hokey, wise, wrinkled grandfathers looking off into the horizon. There are families and farmers and awkward kids. The startling conclusion: Indians are people. They drive cars, they love their kids, they often dress just like other Americans. They cherish their privacy. They have feelings. They should not be romanticized as "noble," nor demonized as "savages."

It would have been interesting to see some current images of Native Americans running Casinos, for instance, or to have photos reflecting Hollywood's recent revisionism (e.g., "Dancing With Wolves" and other attempts to romanticize natives). As a non-native, I also realize that I'm not wearing a white hat in this show. I think I always assumed the cowboys were the good guys.

But the exhibit, whose catalogue has 200 photographs, does a great service: It makes us question stereotypes, and shows us the humans behind the masks.

(This exhibit, which opened in the fall of 1999, will be on display until July 31, 2002. The exhibit includes Indians of the Western Hemisphere, not just America. Admission is free. The museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution. Hours are 10 AM to 5 PM every day; Thursdays, it is open until 8 PM. For program updates, which include everything from films to dance to bead workshops, call 212- 514- 3888. The museum is located in the former U.S. Customs House, one of the most glorious Beaux Arts structures in the country. The museum maintains a website at:

Copyright © John D. Delmar 2002

The exhibition's 224-page catalogue can be ordered from The Smithsonian Institution for $29.95 by calling 1-800-782-4612, or can be ordered from for $24.95.


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