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Utes--Chief Sevara and family

Images of Indians of North America



The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division preserves and makes available more than 17,000 pictorial records of native peoples made chiefly by European and Euro- American artists and photographers. Most of these have documentary importance; some are also important to the artistic development of graphic art and photography.

More than three-quarters of the Division's images are photographs. Other material includes drawings, engravings, lithographs, posters, and architectural drawings. While pictorial material relating to the American Indian was produced as early as the fifteenth century, the Prints and Photographs Division's holdings in this area are strongest for the period 1860 to 1940. Many of these images came to the Library through copyright. Other works have been obtained through gift, purchase, transfer from other federal agencies, and exchange.

Many images can be viewed through the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog using the standard subject heading Indians of North America. For a more detailed discussion of Prints & Photographs Division collections that are strong for images of American Indians and how to search for the images, see a guide compiled in 2018: Native American History and Culture: Finding Pictures.

To make full use of the collections, a personal visit is recommended. Limited service from a distance is also available. Quality copies can be purchased through the Library's Duplication Services.

Major Categories

The Division's holdings document several major aspects of the history and life of native peoples, and the conventions of their depictions:

Delegations and Government Relations: Among the earliest true portraits of Native Americans are those made of tribal leaders or delegates who visited European capitals and Washington, D.C. for diplomatic purposes. These visits and visitors, as well as Indian-white relations such as treaty negotiations, legal affairs, land claims, and protests, are well documented in lithographs, drawings, studio portraits, posters, and photographic prints.

RIGHT: This work is apparently the earliest engraved portrait made from life of a Native American. Drawn and engraved by the Czech printmaker Wenceslaus Hollar, it depicts a twenty-three-year-old Algonquian Indian of Virginia who visited London in 1645. [LC-USZ62-114953 (black & white copy film negative); LC-USZC4-4603 (color transparency)]

Algonquian Indian of Virginia

Navajo weaving, 1873

Federal Government Surveys and Other Expeditions: Some of the most important portrayals of native peoples were produced by artists and photographers accompanying exploration teams into the western parts of the United States, Canada, and Alaska during the 19th and early twentieth centuries. Images in this genre range from fanciful to authentic and include lithographs, stereographs, and photographs, many of which appeared in published reports.

LEFT: One of the first photographs demonstrating Navajo weaving was taken by Timothy H. O'Sullivan on the federal government's Wheeler Survey in 1873. [LC-USZ62-8561 (black & white film copy negative)]

Indian Wars and Confrontations: Since the first encounters, Indian-white relations have been largely characterized by hostility and violence, causing the term "Indian wars" to gain wide currency. Artists portrayed these bloody conflicts, sometimes literally and sometimes imaginatively, in drawings, prints, and in illustrations for popular newspapers and magazines. Because of limited technology, photographers were limited to documenting the grim aftermath of skirmishes, tribal leaders and combatants, battle sites, and other stationary subjects such as forts and military equipment. The Division's holdings reflect the full range of this sort of graphic and photographic documentation.

RIGHT: Although no photographs of the actual massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, exist, George E. Trager was the first photographer to record the burial of the frozen corpses of Lakota Sioux Indians in January 1891 [LC-USZ62-44458 (black & white film copy negative]

Burial of frozen corpses of Lakota Sioux Indians

Crow youth wearing prayer shawl, Crow Indian Researvation, Montana, 1957

The Frontier, Villages, and Reservation Life: Away from the confines of the studio, independent and frontier photographers recorded life in Indian communities, on or near reservations where tribes were forced to relocate. The daily activities of many native tribes west of the Mississippi are well documented in historical photographs of domestic life, homes, ceremonies, games, and work of tribal people and their families.

LEFT: A devout young Crow wearing a prayer shawl, shakes the traditional peyote rattle and holds a feather fan and staff during an all-night ceremony on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana, 1957. Photograph by John Vachon. [LC-L9-57-7402-O, #18 (black &. white film negative)] (see: Look Magazine Photograph Collection rights information)

Expositions, World's Fairs, and Wild West Shows: The spectacle of "real Indians" featured in west show performances, anthropological exhibits, and world's fairs attracted artists and photographers who documented staged tableaux and memorialized many of the Native American participants in photographs. Performers are particularly well documented in the Division's collection of studio portraits while the actual shows are represented in other photographs and in posters advertising such attractions.

RIGHT: The Wild West Show became a popular form of entertainment for people east of the Mississippi and in Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Native American performers helped recreate sham battles and performed traditional dances in the productions. Lithograph by Courier Lithographic Company, 1899. [LC-USZ62-1164 (black & white film copy negative); LC-USZC4-778 (color transparency)]

Poster for Wild West Show

Watching the Dancers, Hope girls a rooftop of Walpi pueblo

Pictorialist Photographs: Unlike documentary photographers, pictorialists tended to create romantic, idealized, and aesthetically pleasing images of Native Americans and Indian life, often using soft-focus, artificial settings, and other means of manipulation. Images in this category include more than 2,500 first generation prints created by the most famous and successful pictorialist photographer of Indians, Edward S. Curtis, who documented life among more than eighty North American tribes.

LEFT: In the 1906 work "Watching the Dancers," Edward S. Curtis photographed Hopi girls on a rooftop of Walpi pueblo. [LC-USZ62-80169 (black & white film copy negative)]

Satires, Stereotypes, and Polemical Representations: The image of the North American Indian has, since the Age of Discovery, served a number of imaginative and symbolic purposes for artists and photographers, especially to mirror political or social trends. Depictions of Indians in the Division's satirical prints, advertising prints, posters, and photographs exemplify the many ways in which pictorial images have conveyed and disseminated powerful and influential ideas, both favorable and unfavorable to Native Americans.

RIGHT: Awkwardly holding the white man's weapon while inadvertently spilling his liquor, this dazed and inept Native American is among the many historic caricatures devised by non-Indian artists. [Process], printed by Vance & Parsloe, 1875. [LC-USZ62-92901 (black & white film copy negative)]

Caricature of Native American spilling his liquor

Two Native Americans, wearing feather headdresses, looking at photographic film

Major Reference Works

Useful publications that specifically address American Indian-related collections in the Prints and Photographs Division including the following:

Many Nations: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Indian and Alaska Native Peoples of the United States. Edited by Patrick Frazier and the Publishing Office. Washington, D.C.: Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996. LC call number: Z1209.2.U5 L53 1996. Available online: External link

The 340-page, richly illustrated book, which is the definitive research guide for the study of Native American history and culture at the Library, is designed to orient researchers to important collections and procedures in nine Library divisions. An entire chapter devoted to the Prints and Photographs Division describes important pictorial collections and details how to access its holdings.

Indians of North America: A Guide to pictorial LOTS. Prepared by Jennifer Brathovde.
Rev. [Washington, D.C.]: Library of Congress, 2001. LC call number: E77.5 .L53 2001.
Available from the Prints and Photographs Division.

A comprehensive, annotated list and subject/creator index of American Indian related collections (LOTS) in the Prints and Photographs Division. Entries, which number more than five hundred, generally include a descriptive summary noting tribe, geographic location, activity, photographer, creator or copyright claimant, dates, and number of items.

The First Americans: Photographs from the Library of Congress. William H. Goetzmann. Washington, D.C.: Starwood Publishers, 1991. LC call number: E89.L53 1991.

Historian William H. Goetzmann offers social commentary on about one hundred fifty images of Native Americans from the Prints and Photographs Division, most of which were taken by turn-of-the-century commercial photographers. Investigating the photographers themselves, Goetzmann questions how their perceptions of American Indians, as well as what was marketable, influenced the visual records they made.

Prepared by: Jennifer Brathovde, Reference Specialist, Oct. 1999; revised Nov. 2018.
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  March 25, 2022
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