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[Detail] Chilkat dancers, Alaska, 1895

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Photographs and Symbols

Carolyn J. Marr discusses the history of photographing Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest in "Taken Pictures: On Interpreting Native American Photographs of the Southern Northwest Coast." She illustrates a change in Native Americans' attitudes towards photography from the late 19th to the early 20th century. At first, many Native Americans were wary of having their photographs taken and often refused. They believed that the process could steal a person's soul and disrespected the spiritual world. Over time, however, some Native Americans came to cherish photographs as links to ancestors and even integrated them into important ceremonies.

Marr defines five types of photographs taken in this period. The first is the studio portrait. Marr explains that Chief Seattle had to be coerced into having his portrait made. Once he had it, the photographer made 100 copies to sell to curious easterners. Notwithstanding many Native Americans' reluctance to have their picture taken, it's possible that some sat willingly for their portraits and kept them for private use. Numerous photographs are available by searching on studio portrait.

  • Is it possible to tell how much a photograph was influenced by the photographer or by the subject?
  • Can you determine if it was taken for private use or commercial purposes? How does this change the meaning of the picture?
  • If subjects sat willingly, what does the choice of clothes, pose, expression, props, and backdrop suggest about how the subjects wanted to be perceived?
  • If these choices were made by the photographer, what does it suggest about how he wanted to portray Native Americans?

The fourth kind of photograph Marr discusses is a nostalgic portrait to be sold as a postcard or for other commercial purposes. (A search on postcards yields a variety of images.) She writes:

"The popularity of picture postcards showing Indian women weaving baskets or digging clams attests to a growing nostalgia relating to Indians. Historians have demonstrated a conceptual link between the disappearing American wilderness and a changing attitude toward Native Americas by looking at both popular literature and the federal government's Indian policies. The Indian came to symbolize America’s lost youth, and his image commemorated that unspoiled past."

(Page 58, "Taken Pictures: On Interpreting Native American Photographs of the Southern Northwest Coast")

  • According to Marr, what symbolic value did photographs of Native Americans acquire and why?
  • How have Native Americans been portrayed over the twentieth century?
  • Where have these images been found? Who made them? How were they used? What was the symbolic meaning of these images?
  • Why do you think that the image of Native Americans has remained a powerful symbol in popular U.S. culture?
  • What aspects of Native American cultures might be particularly appealing to some people in the U.S. and why?
  • Why do you think that some people are particularly fascinated by the history of Native Americans? What parts of this history seem to intrigue people most and why?
  • Why have certain Indians, such as Chiefs Joseph and Seattle, become symbols while others have not? (For more information see David M. Buerge's essay (external link).