Between 1879 and 1902, a man named John N. Choate served as official photographer for the Carlisle Indian School, a federally-funded boarding school in Pennsylvania established to assimilate Native American children into Euro-American culture. Enrollment of indigenous youth was essentially a way to “civilize” them; the pithy motto of its founder, General Richard Henry Pratt, was “Kill the Indian, and save the man.” Choate, who was non-Native, often documented how students changed over as they received new haircuts and attire and shed aspects of their own culture.
Some of his records of this thorny past are among a collection of 19th-century photographs of North American Indians recently digitized and uploaded by the American Antiquarian Society as a scholarly finding aid.
Comprising 225 images, the collection is a small but significant online resource focused on encounters between settlers and indigenous peoples as captured in photography’s early days. These meetings are largely implicit, rather than recorded on paper: white men were the ones behind the large-format cameras, shooting Native subjects, from formal studio portraits to stereographs of them in their homes.
“There’s a lot of image-making of Native people before the camera was invented, but this represents the chapter one of this photographic history of Native people,” Lauren Hewes, the Society’s Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts told Hyperallergic. This history, inextricably tied with American expansionism, raises complicated questions about the agencies of all involved parties.
The Society’s collection features members of 39 nations, but most of the images were not intended for Native audiences. Choate’s images, for instance, while at times sent to students’ parents, were also shown to government officials to receive more funding for the endeavor. The collection also features photographs from two major federally funded surveys: John K. Hillers’s topographical and geological survey of the Colorado Valley and William Henry Jackson’s Descriptive Catalogue of Photographs of North American Indians.
“Such surveys were intended for coastal and European audiences to learn about the American West through pictorial materials — prints, engravings, lithographs, photographs — of the region.” Hewes said. “Those documents were then used in Washington, DC to create the various territories that were being established. The first national park came through that survey process but also the removal of Native people from their areas to the reservation system.” Some images in the collection are explicitly linked to this violence, such as portraits of Modoc people who were held as prisoners of war after the nation’s conflict with the US army.
A few decades after most of these photographs were shot, replicated, and distributed to a wide public, Edward Curtis began capturing, in his words, “the vanishing race.” His portraits of Natives, which are intimate and beautifully lit, comprise one of the most well-known, albeit contentious, ethnographic surveys. This newly available collection of images presents an opportunity to examine lesser known and discussed portraits, and more importantly, consider a broader history of the camera’s role in how Native people were portrayed and perceived.