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A 20th-Century Kiowa Photographer Whose Work Shows Tradition in Transition

by Allison Meier on August 18, 2014

Caption: Gus Palmer (Kiowa, at left), side gunner, and Horace Poolaw (Kiowa), aerial photographer, in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress. MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, ca. 1944. 45UFL14

Gus Palmer (Kiowa, at left), side gunner, and Horace Poolaw (Kiowa), aerial photographer, in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress. MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, 1944. (© 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw, all images courtesy the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian)

For five decades at the beginning of the 20th century, Horace Poolaw photographed a Kiowa community in flux. In black and white, he captured a rare insider’s view of daily tribal life in Oklahoma from the 1920s to 1960s, when the reservations were receding and modernization was embedding in the new state. For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York showcases over 80 of Poolaw’s photographs, along with his trusty Speed Graphic camera.

As the Smithsonian explains, Poolaw was born in 1906 “during a time of great change for his people — one year before Oklahoma statehood and six years after the US government approved an allotment policy that ended the reservation period.” From the age of 17, Poolaw took an interest in photography, and during World War II he was an Army aerial photography instructor. He had a knack for portraiture of rural life, whether it was the fluttering movement of the fancy dancers at a powwow or his own stern-faced children in their tiny suits. A 1930 photograph shows a woman in traditional deerskin with a fashionable bob cut curling over her forehead, one of the several to show the mixing of inside and outside influences on Kiowa life.

Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday wrote this on Poolaw’s photography:

Looking at his life’s work, we see that he was the equal of such frontier photographers as Edward Curtis, Charles Lummis, and William Soule; and in his native intelligence (my emphasis) and understanding of the indigenous world, he surpassed them.

The retrospective is accompanied by a monograph from Yale University Press. Poolaw passed away in 1984, but his work remains under the radar, perhaps because it was produced for and about his community. Yet it offers an incredible insight into a time and place of tradition in transition.

Caption: The deacons of Rainy Mountain Baptist Church. Left to right: Adolphus Goombi (Kiowa), Lester Momaday (Kiowa), Robert Goombi (Kiowa), Porter Drywater (Cherokee). Rainy Mountain Church, Mountain View, Oklahoma, ca. 1930. 57PN12

Hoorace Poolaw, “The deacons of Rainy Mountain Baptist Church. Left to right: Adolphus Goombi (Kiowa), Lester Momaday (Kiowa), Robert Goombi (Kiowa), Porter Drywater (Cherokee),” Rainy Mountain Church, Mountain View, Oklahoma, 1930. (© 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw)

Caption: Left to right: Sindy Libby Keahbone (Kiowa) and Hannah Keahbone (Kiowa). Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, ca. 1930. 57PC2

Horace Poolaw, “Sindy Libby Keahbone (Kiowa) and Hannah Keahbone (Kiowa),” Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1930. (© 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw)

Caption: Funeral of Agnes (Mrs. Abel) Big Bow (Kiowa). Hog Creek, Oklahoma, 1947. 45UFN9 Tom Jones 7 1/2 hour

Horace Poolaw, “Funeral of Agnes (Mrs. Abel) Big Bow (Kiowa),” Hog Creek, Oklahoma, 1947. (© 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw)

Caption: Powwow at Lone Bear’s dance ground. Carnegie, Oklahoma, ca. 1945. 45POW55

Horace Poolaw, “Powwow at Lone Bear’s dance ground,” Carnegie, Oklahoma, 1945. (© 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw)

Caption: Left to right: Newton Poolaw (Kiowa), Jerry Poolaw (Kiowa), Elmer Thomas “Buddy” Saunkeah (Kiowa). Mountain View, Oklahoma, ca. 1928. 57FK1

Horace Poolaw, “Newton Poolaw (Kiowa), Jerry Poolaw (Kiowa), Elmer Thomas “Buddy” Saunkeah (Kiowa),” Mountain View, Oklahoma, 1928. (© 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw)

Caption: Danny Williams, left, and George “Woogie” Watchtaker (Comanche) at the Anadarko Indian Exposition. Anadarko, Oklahoma, ca. 1959. 45EXP17

Horace Poolaw, “Danny Williams, left, and George “Woogie” Watchtaker (Comanche) at the Anadarko Indian Exposition,” Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1959. (© 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw)

Caption: Eula Mae Narcomey Doonkeen (Seminole) in the American Indian Exposition Parade. Anadarko, Oklahoma, ca. 1952. 45EXCW6

Horace Poolaw, “Eula Mae Narcomey Doonkeen (Seminole) in the American Indian Exposition Parade,” Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1952. (© 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw)

Caption: Left to right: Juanita Daugomah Ahtone (Kiowa), Evalou Ware Russell (center), Kiowa Tribal Princess, and Augustine Campbell Barsh (Kiowa) in the American Indian Exposition parade. Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1941. 45EP9 Tom Jones 2 1/2 hours of cleaning

Hoorace Poolaw, “Juanita Daugomah Ahtone (Kiowa), Evalou Ware Russell (center), Kiowa Tribal Princess, and Augustine Campbell Barsh (Kiowa) in the American Indian Exposition parade,” Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1941. (© 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw)

Caption: Robert “Corky” and Linda Poolaw (Kiowa/Delaware), dressed up and posed for the photo by their father, Horace. Anadarko, Oklahoma, ca. 1947. 45HPF57 Tom Jones 1 1/2 hour Stephanie Nutt 3 hours

Robert “Corky” and Linda Poolaw (Kiowa/Delaware), dressed up and posed for the photo by their father, Horace. Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1947. (© 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw)

For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw continues at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (1 Bowling Green, Financial District, Manhattan) through February 15, 2015.

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