Spirit Capture: Photographs from the National Museum of the American Indian

Aug 15th, 1999 | By | Category: 10-4: Native Arts Education, Media Reviews

Native American lives are filled with ironic contradiction, as illustrated by two photos of Goyathlay (Geronimo) from the Smithsonian’s collection. He is normally shown with his rifle in hand and not with his family at home in their garden.

Edited by Tim Johnson (Mohawk)
Published by Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998
$29.95 paper, $55 cloth
206 pages, 177 photographs

Review by Walter Bigbee

Photographs more than any artifact illustrate Native America in transition. The Native transition unfolds in vintage portraits juxtaposed with contemporary portraits in this catalog of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian photography collection. Spirit Capture arouses the emotions of a people apprehended, displaced, and assimilated. Hauntingly beautiful images from throughout the Western Hemisphere accompany the text.

George Gustav Heye’s collections form the core of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian holdings. A biography of Heye depicts him as an amateur anthropologist and fanatic collector of anything Indian. A lot of the photographs were taken to give authenticity to artifacts he collected, such as clothing.

The collection stresses acculturation and a shift from Natives being viewed as a dying race to one of persistence. A photo essay about Native Alaska especially renders the sense of cultural tenacity. Contemporary images of a boarding school depict assimilated teenagers, in contrast with the vintage boarding school images of frightened and confused children.

In his essay Richard W. Hill Sr. (Tuscarora) describes stereotypical images relevant to Native history. The culturally inaccurate images of the “noble savage” created heroes. This phenomenon also occurred on reservations, creating icons to be emulated.

Linda Poolaw’s relationship with the collection brings the Native reader home. Poolaw (Delaware/Kiowa) tells how she visits with the people in the images. I compare her research to visiting relatives. Once home, she recounts that experience. The history of her father (photographer Horace Poolaw) and her people is told through her memories. “The first time I saw Buffalo was at the Wildlife Refuge near Fort Sill. My father would go there a lot to take pictures of the buffalo; he also just needed to sit near them,” she writes.

Spirit Capture is an excellent, must have for cultural scientists, but it has serious shortcomings. The book includes specially commissioned contemporary photographs by Larry McNeil (Tlingit), Katherine Fogden (Mohawk), Dorothy Gradbois (Chippewa), Larry Gus (Navajo), and Janine Sarna Jones. The Native photographers seem to have been included as a token gesture. Readers don’t even know they are Native until the appendix. It seems that the museum got Native photographers to give authenticity to the book, much as Heye used photographs to give authenticity to his collection.

I would much rather see more photos and culturally relevant text gathered from Native Americans. After writing pages and pages about the vintage photographers, one of the book’s essayists said the value of the exhibit is in the obscure photos. Yet many of the people in these photographs are not identified. By not giving us an identity, we’re still just artifacts to them. Instead of focusing on the vintage photographers, the book should have told the story of these vintage photos. It would have been much more interesting to send the photo back to its community and have that community identify the people, what they’re doing, and how the photo fits into the history of the tribe.

Walter BigBee (Toya Band of the Comanche Nation) is an editorial and fine art photographer, traditional artist, and educator living at Tesuque, N.M. He has documented projects and collections for major museums including the National Museum of American Indians. His work has been exhibited and published internationally.

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