NEW YORK, May 24 (UPI) -- A little-known aspect of American photography -- the photographing of indigenous Americans for a range of purposes not always admirable -- is the subject of a revealing exhibit at the Heye Center of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in lower Manhattan.
This show is titled "Spirit Capture," a reference to an Indian superstition that the camera could capture the souls of its subjects, and will run through July 2l. It can be enjoyed on the level of photo artistry, since it contains many fine prints ranging from 19th century daguerreotypes taken by white ethnologists to contemporary color slides by Tlingit photographer Larry McNeil of native Alaskans at home and at work.
But it is not basically a show about photography.
Curators Richard W. Hill Sr. of the Tuscarora tribe and Natasha Bonilla-Martinez have selected 200 images from the Smithsonian's archive of 125,000 Indian photographs, stereopticon cards, transparencies, and documentary movies that inform the viewer on who took the photographs and for what motives.
Often the motive was political in nature, an effort to prove the U.S. government was providing a happy life for Indians during the Reservation Era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Many of the photos on display were taken to convince the American public that native American culture was persisting, when in fact it was in serious decline due to a program of assimilation pursued by the federal government's Indian Agency. Examples of such photography, the so-called treaty photographs showing Indian "peace" delegations on visits to the Great White Father in Washington, D.C., are a spectacular element of the exhibition.
One of the nine treaty photographs on view has at its subject the Oto Indian delegation on a visit to the nation's capital to receive peace medals from the president in 1881. It shows five solemn Indian braves in elaborate native costume, including war bonnets and animal teeth necklaces, posed in a Victorian setting. One of them carries a hatchet, which presumably is about to be buried.
Only one of the treaty photographs, that of an Apache delegation, includes a woman. She is wearing a demure dress, white woman-style, possibly accounting for her sullen expression.
The other side of the photographic coin was the art photograph taken of Indians by talented photographers of the 20th century bent on romancing the Noble Savage at a time when everybody -- both Americans and Europeans - seemed to be fascinated by feathered Indians and wanted souvenir photographs of them.
These include an idealized picture of a Blackfoot Chief, White Quiver, addressing his tribal council against a backdrop of misty white teepees and distant snowy mountain peaks and sepia portraits of Navajo and Laguna Pueblo youth taken by German photographer Carl Moon. Many Indians willingly posed for such contrived images.
While photographs like Moon's tended to isolate individual Indians and eliminate cultural references, there were other photographers who avoided glamorizing their subjects. One of them was a photo-journalist Frank G. Speck, active until 1950, who made a career of photographing native peoples of the Eastern seaboard in unposed, real-life circumstances.
Other photographers were motivated by assimilationist zeal, taking pictures that showed how far Indians had come in becoming "just like us." U.S. Indian Agency employee Frank C. Churchill and his wife, Clara, photographed Indians and gave slide lectures on their progress toward Western culture, a simulated version of which is in the show.
There also are "before" and "after" class photographs of Apache reservation school children in Pennsylvania in 1886, showing how long-haired, barefoot Indian youth in native dress could be transformed into neatly trimmed and shod students in school uniforms.
The earliest photograph of an American Indian was made in Britain in 1845 when aborigines were just as much curiosities as Princess Pocahantas was when she arrived in London in 1616 as the bride of Virginia planter John Rolfe and was presented to the king in English finery. One of the earliest photos in the exhibition is of James Mye, a Cape Cod, Mass., Mashpee Indian, wearing the latest 1860s fashion for men and a top hat.
A section of the show is devoted to images of Geronimo, the much-feared and covertly admired Apache Indian fighter. He became a Che Guevara-style hero to many white people, sold autographed portraits of himself at the St. Louis World's fair, and rode in Teddy Roosevelt's inaugural procession.
Photos of Geronimo show him as a glowering guerrilla brandishing a rifle as well as a devoted family man posed with his children in a melon patch.
Although battle scenes are included in the show, including one of the corpse-strewn Wounded Knee field in South Dakota, scene of the Indians massacre by federal troops in 1890, they are more likely to be photographs of battles staged by Buffalo Bill Cody for his Wild West show. Cody's Indians were real Indian actors, playing roles that were a mix of history and legend reflecting both pride and prejudice on the part of their mostly white audiences.
Most of the Indian photographs in the Smithsonian's archives were collected or commissioned by George Gustav Heye (1874-1957), a wealthy New York connoisseur of Indian art and culture. Heye's vast collection is now housed in the Heye Center, a branch of the National Museum of the American Indian that will eventually be built on The Mall in Washington.