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New virtual U-M exhibition reexamines photography of midwest Native people, tribes

By Tracy Payovich

A Servant in the House, 1916. This was the first U-M play produced for college credit.

Photography can be a tool of colonialism, as well as a tool of sovereignty and self-identification. 

With this principle at heart, the student creators of a new online exhibition investigate the complex balance between violation of privacy and the quest for self-identification felt by Native peoples during the early era of photography. 

Drawing from the recently acquired Richard Pohrt Jr. Collection of Native American Photography at the University of Michigan’s William L. Clements Library, the exhibition asks visitors to first consider questions of consent and agency, guiding them through “reading” photographs in order to deduce revealing aspects of their content, meaning and use over time.

Students at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, one of the most well-known boarding schools in the US. Photographed by John N. Choate, ca. 1880s.

The exhibition, “‘No, not even for a picture’: Re-examining the Native Midwest and Tribes’ Relations to the History of Photography,” is now online

“The Richard Pohrt Jr. Collection of Native American Photography covers a lot of ground with over 80 tribes represented, each with their own history and culture,” said Clayton Lewis, curator of graphic materials at the Clements Library. “This online exhibition focuses on the Anishinaabe people, and is one of many projects that will emerge from the Pohrt Collection. We chose this subject as we are on historically Anishinaabic land here in Michigan and there are surprising stories within this tribal history that need to be better known.”

Chief David Shopp-en-a-gon from Grayling, Michigan, photographed by George H. Bonnell, ca. 1890

Prairie Band Potawatomi women posing with photograph. Photographer William M. Oaks, ca. 1880s.

The exhibition title derives from an excerpt from an 1891 photographic journal, in which a photographer admits he has “coaxed” his Native subject into a pose, assuring him no one will see it, but ultimately publishes the photo for an international audience. 

Early American photographers—whether employed by the U.S. government,  professional photographic companies or one of the many individual itinerants crossing the continent—were motivated by curiosity, adventure and money. Photographers sought images that recorded the people and events of the new frontier and could be sold within an expanding market eager for those stories.

From the mid-19th to the early 20th century, the practice of photography expanded, with photographic styles and practices setting visual trends, forwarding stereotypes and maintaining myths. Throughout the same decades, 20 new states joined the Union, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota—leading to the assimilation and displacement of countless Native populations.

“Our student interns brought a heartfelt personal perspective to this project, and I am proud that they addressed some of these difficult and complex issues directly,” Lewis said.

Focusing on the Anishinaabe people of the Great Lakes region and beyond, the exhibition examines the photography that recorded the people, molded stereotypes and illustrated myths of this important time.

Census Map of Anishinaabe populations in 1930. Census map and data collected by Arland Thornton and Lindsey Willow Smith, photo edits provided by Veronica Cook Williamson. Populations Studies Center, University of Michigan, 2020.

Accompanied by a glossary of relevant terms, the exhibition consists of seven nonlinear sections that each focus on aspects of the relationship between Native people and the mostly non-Native photographers who produced images of them. Sections include:

  • Land and Sovereignty: Ownership, Use, and Legalities
  • Struck in a Pose: Photographic Techniques and Romanticization
  • Myth Making: A Case Study on the “Hiawatha” Pageants
  • Complex Nationalism: A Case Study on the Minnesota Dakota War of 1862
  • Views of Assimilation: A Case Study on Photography in Indian Boarding Schools
  • Displaced Portraiture: A Case Study on Documenting Removal
  • Daily Life

Supported by Lewis, the project’s interpretive and creative leads were Lindsey Willow Smith (undergraduate student, History and Museum Studies) and Veronica Cook Williamson (doctoral student, Germanic Languages and Literatures).

The authors explain: “…this exhibit is thematically rooted in questions of consent, agency, myth-making and representation. We hope that this exhibit shows the production and circulation of images of Native Americans as one vital piece in a larger, ongoing battle over sovereignty and recognition.”

All materials represented in the online exhibit are from the Clements Library’s Richard Pohrt Jr. Collection of Native American Photography unless otherwise noted. 

Collaborative support was also provided by the U-M Institute for Social Research, with consultation coming from Eric Hemenway, director of Repatriation, Archives and Records, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians; Jakob Dopp, Graphics Division cataloger, Clements Library; Louis Miller, reference specialist, Clements Library; Richard Pohrt Jr., collector; Arland Thornton, professor of sociology, research professor, Population Studies Center, Institute for Social Research; Linda Young-DeMarco, research area specialist sead, SRC-Family Demography, Institute for Social Research; Paul Erickson, the Randolph G. Adams Director of the Clements Library.

This project was made possible by funding from the Frederick S. Upton Foundation.


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