“Blackfoot Chief, Mountain Chief making phonographic record at Smithsonian, 2/9/1916” via Library of Congress
Description via Wikipedia: “Part of a series of pictures depicting Frances Densmore at the Smithsonian Institution in 1916 during a recording session with Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology.”
I’m researching nineteenth century US expeditions & surveys of the West, the work of Timothy O’Sullivan and Muybridge amongst many others. Aside from how incredibly beautiful these pictures are, what’s been haunting me for the past few weeks is the barely documented uprooting of Native American culture.
Okay … duh. But no! There’s so many great books and detailed studies about the surveys and so little mention of this most disturbing aspect of expansion and modernisation, the processual violence which indeed is barely present in the photographic record. The force with which Native American territories were colonized or turned into national parks, and the surviving tribes squeezed into reservations, paralleled by the growing interest in documenting and “preserving” the people, their culture, heritage and ways of life - through ethnographic study, but mainly via stereotyping trends in popular culture. (The Bureau of American Ethnology for instance was founded in 1879, and Muybridge made stereographs of various Native American tribes for commercial distribution during commissions ranging from the Modoc War to Yellowstone.) Both removed aesthetic preoccupations.
My point is, over and over again we look. But what we actually see is uncertain. Memory has its ways of forgetting, even in the present. And unfortunately science, or scholarship can do little but observe in turn the ways in which we have historically looked (overlooked), and often destroyed.