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Documenting Native American Life


This virtual exhibit highlights both the Western photographers' role in documenting American Indian life and the photographs themselves. The work of noted Western photographers including George A. Addison, Fort Sill, Oklahoma Territory; W. E. Irwin, Chickasha, Indian Territory; Thomas Houseworth, San Francisco, California; John K. Hillers, the Powell Expedition of 1873; Timothy O’ Sullivan, the Wheeler Survey Expedition of 1874; and others are featured. images created for mass distribution by stereograph manufacturers Underwood & Underwood and Keystone View Company and several postcard publishers are also included.

Exhibition photographs include traditional studio portraits, images that show the material culture of Native American people, portrayals that reinforce white stereotypes, images of traditional Indian lifeways, and photographs that illustrate aspects of Native American history. The ways photographs can sometimes misrepresent American Indian life and experience is also explored. Among the photographic formats in the exhibit are albumen photographs, cabinet card photographs, real photo postcards, and stereographs.

For purposes of this virtual exhibit the photographs are divided according to the categories noted above, but, of course, these are not absolute categories. For example, portrait photographs can show clothing and other material culture and stereotypical depictions may also have authentic aspects.

Portraits ~ Material Culture ~ Stereotypical Depictions ~ Lifeways ~ History


2003.140 Amie and Carrie, Kiawah
Cabinet photograph
George A. Addison, Fort Sill, OT, circa 1895

Studio portrait by noted Fort Sill photographer George A. Addison depicts two young Kiowa women with fringed printed cloth shawls and cradleboards with traditional beaded decoration. The cradleboard on the right has two cloth dolls and a toy tea set attached to its top.

2002.188 Lissie Woodward & son Oliver
Cabinet photograph
W . E. Irwin, Chickasha, IT, circa 1895

Studio portrait of a young Kiowa mother, Lissie Woodward, and her son Oliver in a
cradleboard. The cradleboard exhibits traditional geometric Kiowa designs and studs in the support boards, while Lissie’s shawl is of a printed floral design.

2002.183 Untitled [Two Osage women and a boy]
Cabinet photograph
Photographer unknown, circa 1880

Studio portrait shows two Osage women and a young boy who is probably the son of one of the women. All three have identical earrings with bells, both women have silver brooches and the woman on the left has sun ray tattoos on the back of her hands, which is a traditional Osage practice.

2003.219.1 Osages, Ton Kosh […] two wives & children
Cabinet photograph
W. M. Cavnar, Ralston, OT, circa 1900

Studio portrait of an Osage family with the husband and two wives clothed in traditional Osage dress with striped fabric, beadwork and hat and the young boys dressed in European clothing complete with knickers, belts, and manufactured leather shoes.

2001.081 Untitled [Indian boy]
Cabinet photograph
R. M. Lease, Lancaster, PA, circa 1890

This photograph is a good example of an image that is not what it seems to be. This studio photograph of an American Indian boy seems to be, based on appearance and the proximity of the photographer to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a "before" picture of a student from that school. However, if you look closely there are clues in the photograph that do not support that interpretation. The star and moon design on the necklace and pins, which are probably actually earrings, do not correspond to any known Indian design. The beaded gauntlets are Iroquoian. The cartridge belt dates from the 1870s, but holds two different types of cartridge: pistol cartridges and very large single-shot buffalo rifle cartridges. The two feathers in the boy’s hair are anachronistic in this context. He appears to be holding a holy medal and crucifix in his right hand, which may indicate attendance in a Catholic Indian school, yet his hair is not cut, which would be standard practice for an Indian school student of the period. The conclusion one draws from the photograph is that, although the boy is Indian, most, if not all, of his costume is a studio prop. Who he is, what tribe he belongs to, and why this photograph was taken is a mystery.

2002.226.3 Untitled [Grass dancer]
Cabinet photograph
Photographer unknown, ca. 1890

Studio portrait of a young Native American man from an unknown tribe. The photograph includes an interesting combination of elements including a Plains Indian blanket that may be a studio prop, a classical European studio setting, and a young man whose pan-Indian costume cannot be identified with a particular tribe, but who may be a grass dancer based on his hair roach and knee bells.

2002.230 Untitled [Iroquoian family portrait]
Cabinet photograph
Prudden, Jamestown, NY, circa 1900

Studio portrait shows an Iroquoian family in elaborate beaded dress. The husband is proudly displaying his 1885 Model Winchester rifle.

Material Culture

2003.277.1 Jicarilla Apache brave and [wife], lately wedded. Abiquiu Agency, New Mexico
Timothy O’Sullivan, Wheeler Survey Expedition of 1874, circa 1874

Along with William Henry Jackson and John K. Hillers, Timothy O’Sullivan was one of the premier Western survey photographers of the 19th century American West. This stereograph was taken on the 1874 Wheeler Survey that covered Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. This Jicarilla Apache couple was photographed at the Abiquiu Agency in northern New Mexico. Although primarily based in New Mexico, the Jicarilla Apache also ranged to hunting grounds in the Southern Plains, as shown by the buffalo robe displayed in this image.

2003.055 Indian tepee, El Reno, O. Ter., Feb. 5, 1900
Cabinet photograph
Photographer unknown, 1900

Photograph taken near El Reno, Oklahoma Territory shows an American Indian family in the family wagon posed in front of a traditional tipi. Although the family is dressed in European clothing and owns a farm wagon, the rack of pelts behind the wagon probably indicates that they or someone else is using the tipi as a dwelling.

2003.078 Untitled [Navajo man and woman, Warren Trading Post Co., Kayenta, Arizona]
Albumen photograph
Harmon Percy Marble, 1926

Unidentified Navajo man and woman posed outside the Warren Trading Post Co. in Kayenta, Arizona. The woman is wearing a commercial Pendleton shawl and the man has a fine example of a Navajo rug draped over his shoulders.

2002.016 Navajo Indian home on the desert
Keystone View Company, Meadville, PA, circa 1900

Mass-produced stereograph features a posed scene of a Navajo family in front of a temporary summer shade shelter, which, despite the caption, was not used as a permanent dwelling. A weaving frame can be seen inside the shelter.

Stereotypical Depictions

2002.114 Untitled [Indians at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois]
Cabinet photograph
Friesleben Portraits, Chicago, IL, 1893

The Midway at the World’s Columbian Exposition (or World’s Fair) of 1893 featured a "Bazaar of Nations" with villages "peopled by natives from every clime." Among the peoples on display at this "bazaar" were American Indians. This photograph shows a group of Plains Indians, one of whom is dressed in a suit and top hat, greeting a visitor. The display of American Indians as an exotic curiosity is especially poignant in view of Wounded Knee, the last military action directed at Native Americans, which had occurred just three years previously, and historian Frederick Jackson Turner's pronouncement at the 1893 Fair that the frontier was "closed."

2001.025 White Wolf, a Comanche warrior
Cabinet photograph
W. E. Irwin, Chickasha, IT, circa 1900

Studio portrait of White Wolf a Comanche warrior wearing an eagle feather war bonnet, which is traditionally more associated with the Sioux and other tribes of the Central Plains, but was also worn by the warriors of Southern Plains tribes like the Comanche. The other aspect of White Wolf’s dress that is distinctively Comanche are the otter fur hair wraps that hang down his front. He is holding a Model 1894 Marlin rifle.

99.06.5 Arrowmaker, Ojibwa brave
Tinted photographic postcard
Detroit Photographic Co., Detroit, MI, 1903

This photographic postcard, meant to be sold as a souvenir, taps into white stereotypes of Native Americans as fierce or savage. The man pictured in the postcard is represented as an Ojibwa Indian, which is a Woodland tribe from the Great Lakes region, but the clothing he is wearing is of Plains Indian origin. Unlike the clothing, the rifle stock club he is wielding could be an authentic Woodland weapon.

2000.063 Chief Eagle Calf
Photographic postcard
Photographer unknown, Montana (?), circa 1920

In the 1920s, when access to Glacier National Park was primarily by train, a group of Blackfeet Indian “chiefs” would greet new arrivals and offer to sell photographic postcards of themselves. “Chief” Eagle Calf (John Ground) was part of this group. The postcards sold for a nominal price and could be autographed for an additional cost, which is the case with this card. The first pictograph symbol is the sign for chief or man, the second means eagle, and the third is calf, thus Chief Eagle Calf. Our thanks to Lyle J. Heavyrunner, grandson of John Ground (Chief Eagle Calf), for this translation.

2003.131.1 “Red-skins” & cowboys
Underwood & Underwood, Baltimore, MD, 1889

Stereograph of American Indians lined up for a performance in a Wild West show, which, based on the date, may have been Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show or another similar traveling show. Wild West shows were a popular form of entertainment in the United States and Europe in the late 19th century and early 20th century. These shows would usually feature trick shooting and riding, dubious reenactments of Western historical events, and Native Americans dressed in full tribal regalia. Wild West shows are also one of the antecedents of contemporary rodeo.

2003.085 Cowboys and Indians talking in the sign language, Okla.
Keystone View Company, Meadville, PA, circa 1910

This posed stereograph shows an Oklahoma cowboy sign talking with two Plains Indians. Indian sign language has been a staple of Western films since the beginning of the film industry, but unlike many Western film conventions, Indian sign language is firmly based in fact. There are well over 200 different vocal American Indian languages and dialects. This multiplicity of languages encouraged the creation of sign languages that allowed communication between diverse tribal groups.

2002.024 In the village of Blackfeet Indians near St. Mary’s Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana
Keystone View Company, Meadville, PA, circa 1920

This posed stereograph depicts a small Blackfeet village in Glacier National Park. The photograph is very reminiscent of the work of pictorialist photographer Roland Reed who photographed the Blackfeet at around the same time.


2002.006 Indian woman baking bread, New Mexico
Keystone View Company, Meadville, PA, circa 1900

Mass-produced stereograph features a posed scene of two Indian women baking bread in a classic Pueblo oven called a “horno oven.” A fire is built in the oven to heat it, after the oven is hot the coals are removed, the bread dough is inserted and the opening is sealed to trap the heat. The bread bakes over a period of many hours.

2002.070.1 Shearing sheep obtaining wool to be used in Navajo Indian rug weaving – Arizona
Photographic postcard
Frasher’s Fotos, Pomona, CA, circa 1920

Real photo postcard shows two young Navajo women shearing sheep to be used in weaving traditional Navajo blankets, rugs and clothing. Mass-produced to be sold as a souvenir of Arizona.

2003.205 Chu-ar-ru-um-peak shooting a rabbit
John K. Hillers, Powell Expedition of 1873, circa 1873

Along with William Henry Jackson and Timothy O’Sullivan, John K. Hillers was one of the premier Western survey photographers of the 19th century American West. This posed shot shows a group of Southern Paiutes hunting rabbits with bow and arrow. Julian H. Steward, Bureau of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, writes that there is no information about the use of the feather crowns shown in the photograph among the Southern Paiutes. The appearance of the crown in Hillers’ photograph is no proof it was an article of everyday wear, especially as many of the groups he photographed were obviously dressed and posed for the camera. Among the Owens Valley Paiutes in California this type of headgear was used, but only as dance regalia. Just because a photograph was taken on an early expedition is no guarantee what is shown is authentic.

This group of three photographs comes from a Kincaid, Saskatchewan collection. The nearest Indian reserve to Kincaid is the Wood Mountain Reserve, which was set aside for the Sioux Indians who did not return to the United States with Sitting Bull in 1881. The Assiniboine Indians also have reserves in southern Saskatchewan, and the clothing and decoration of the two groups on horseback reflect Assiniboine traditions. These Assiniboines are perhaps attending a tribal gathering of some sort. The significance of the procession of women and children is unclear. They seem to be dressed in their best clothing and so perhaps they are attending a tribal gathering or some religious event.

2002.180.26 Untitled [Indian women and children in procession]
Albumen photograph
Photographer unknown, Saskatchewan (?), circa 1905

2002.180.27 Untitled [Indian men on horses]
Albumen photograph
Photographer unknown, Saskatchewan (?), circa 1905

2002.180.25 Untitled [Indian women on horses]
Albumen photograph
Photographer unknown, Saskatchewan (?), circa 1905


2003.161 Indian guard, confined in Fort Marion, St. Augustine, Fla.
O. Pierre Havens, Savannah, GA, circa 1875

Stereograph of the Indian guard at Fort Marion, St. Augustine, Florida where a group of Southern Plains Indians were confined in the mid-1870s. Under the approach of prison administrator Captain Richard H. Pratt the prisoners took turns as uniformed guards in their own prison. Wearing a uniform allowed the prisoners to feel accepted as soldiers, which helped them maintain their personal status as warriors. Among the group pictured here is Little Chief (Cheyenne) and Zotom (Kiowa), who was one of the Fort Marion ledger artists.

2003.108.1 Chnmisconec, Yuma Indian runner
Cabinet photograph
Thomas Houseworth, San Francisco, CA, 1890

Studio portrait of Yuma Indian runner Chnmisconec by noted San Francisco photographer Thomas Houseworth. It was the custom of the Colorado Steam Navigation Company agent at Yuma, Arizona, when the river steamer was two days into its three-day trip, to dispatch a message to the agent at Port Ysabel, at the head of the Gulf of California. This message was given to a Yuma Indian, who carried the message afoot across the desert a distance of ninety miles, reaching his destination the same day the river steamer was due to arrive, but invariably in advance of the boat. The Indian always covered the distance between sunrise and sunset, performing the same feat on his return. Why these messages were sent by runner when the boat would arrive shortly is unclear.

2002.038 Untitled [Female Indian school students]
Cabinet photograph
Photographer unknown, Great Falls, MT (?), circa 1910

Indian school graduation photograph, probably from Great Falls, Montana, but the specific school is unknown. Anecdotal evidence obtained along with the photograph indicates that the African American/Cheyenne man in the front row is named Paul Goings and he would eventually marry Nettie (upper right corner) who is Cheyenne. The significance of the uniform worn by Paul Goings is unclear.

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