Photography changes the ways cultural groups are represented and perceived

Edwin Schupman

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Edwin Schupman [ BIO ]

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Edwin Schupman

Edwin Schupman, citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, works in the Education Office of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. As a culture-based curriculum developer and trainer of educators, he produces materials for school and family audiences that focus on improving education for and about American Indians across the United States.

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Edwin Schupman, citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma and an educator at the National Museum of the American Indian, looks at how historical photographs can reflect cultural stereotypes rather than complex truths.

Using photographs as educational resources presents particular challenges and must be done with care. There is always more than face value in any photo, and historical photos of American Indians are no exception. Photography’s rise in the late 19th century coincided with great change in American Indian communities—an era that capped over three hundred years of diseases, wars, cultural disruption, and land dispossession. As Indian people struggled to adapt to catastrophic changes to their old ways of living, photographers took thousands of studio portraits and made what they believed to be neutral ethnographic images of the “vanishing Indian.” As Indian cultures bent under pressure to assimilate into mainstream America, photographers routinely captured images that compared the new “civilized” Indian to the tradition-bound “savages.” Indian delegations that traveled to Washington, D.C. to defend tribal treaty rights were photographed in studios and in front of federal buildings. Photographers also accompanied government expeditions to the West where they documented traditional cultures, leading the way for tourists and commercial photographers who followed, carrying their cameras and preconceptions into Native American communities. These efforts generated a legacy of photographic images of American Indian people that can serve today as rich educational resources. But if used carelessly, they can also fuel romanticized and stereotypical perceptions of American Indians.

Consider some of the many photographs of Goyathlay, the Apache man who Mexicans named “Geronimo” (Jerome). He and other Chiricahua Apaches fought a protracted war from 1863 to 1886 against the United States for the right to live in their traditional homelands rather than on reservations.

Thus it was in the beginning; the Apaches and their homes each created for the other by Usen himself. . . . When a child my mother taught me the legends of our people; taught me of the sun and sky, the moon and stars, the clouds and storms. She also taught me to kneel and pray to Usen for strength, health, wisdom, and protection.

Geronimo’s Story of His Life, ed. by S.M. Barrett, 1906

The Chiricahua Apaches’ fight for freedom captured the American imagination in the late 19th century. “Geronimo,” especially, became a legendary figure and a media phenomenon whose legacy has lasted into the 21st century. He became synonymous with courage, daring, and savage ruthlessness. World War II paratroopers shouted his name as they jumped from airplanes into combat. Movies, television shows, comic books, popular songs, posters, t-shirts, and American cities have borne his image and name. A photo that shows Goyathlay and three other Chiricahuas in their camp just prior to surrendering to U.S. forces in 1886, documents a critical and difficult day for the people who had fought so diligently for their freedom. But, photos can be reinterpreted over time and often take on new meanings. This same photo has recently shown up on t-shirts with a slogan that says: “Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” The t-shirt is popular among Indian people.

In another well known studio portrait, circa 1890, Goyathlay poses with a rifle. To late-19th-century Americans, “Geronimo” was a dangerous enemy, yet at the same time a curiosity and romantic symbol of the “wild west.” This photo personifies the renegade image but, strangely, it was taken about two to four years after Goyathlay surrendered—while he was a prisoner of war. Why, then, was this photo taken? What meaning did it convey at the time? What must have been in Goyathlay’s mind? What does the photo mean today? Is it loaded with historical truths or is it as empty as the prisoner’s bullet chamber?

A few years later, Goyathlay was photographed again, this time in a more pastoral pose and place—holding a melon in a garden with his wife and three of their children. What was the meaning behind this photo? Did people of the time see it as a simple family photo, or did it personify the government’s policy toward Indians at the time—subduing feared and hated warriors, “re-educating” them, converting them to Christianity, and teaching them to farm in order to guide them towards a “better” way of life? Ironically, the Apaches had long farmed as part of the traditional life they fought so tenaciously to protect.

Because photographs are frequently the only visual records of important people and events, their educational potential is enormous. However, photographs are not objective; they can easily tell as many lies as truths. As much as any written document, they have to be “read” with care in order to be understood accurately in unbiased and non-stereotypical terms. Every photo of people contains history, culture, and context. To do justice to the subjects and their stories, it is crucial to fill in the information gaps. In addition to conducting background research, try putting yourself inside these photos—stand next to Goyathlay, his peers, his wife and their children and imagine their lives—you might begin to understand the world from their points of view. Framed with factual information and viewed empathetically, each photograph can reach its richest potential as a significant educational opportunity and resource.

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Studio portrait of Goyathlay by Unidentified photographer
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Studio portrait of Flathead (Salish?) delegation to Washington, DC by John K. Hillers
Goyathlay, his wife, and children holding melons in Oklahoma. by Unidentified photographer
  • Goyathlay, his wife, and children holding melons in Oklahoma., c. 1895
  • Unidentified photographer
  • Read image description
Copyright 1888 C.S. Fly, Tombstone, Ariz. No. 174--Geronimo, Son and Two Picked Braves. Man with Long Rifle Geronimo by Camillus Sidney Fly
  • Copyright 1888 C.S. Fly, Tombstone, Ariz. No. 174--Geronimo, Son and Two Picked Braves. Man with Long Rifle Geronimo, 1886
  • Camillus Sidney Fly
  • Read image description
Untitled by John N. Choate
Untitled by John N. Choate

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