By John D. Delmar
Who is an Indian?
What is an Indian?
What does an Indian look like?
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."
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
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?"
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.
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?
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.
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