Preservers of the Native American culture through photography

by Bob Walden

There is no way to accurately know the number of Native Americans before 1850. The first counting of Native Americans for the United States census was 1850. Previously they were not counted among the U.S. population. Estimated figures prior to this time were from a range of 2 million to 12 million. By the 1890’s less than a quarter of a million remained.

The early doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the belief that expansion was justified and destined to spread across the North American continent, led to the demise of many Native Americans.

President Thomas Jefferson signing of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 started the westward expansion that nearly doubled the size of the United States. The population of the United States expanded from an estimated 4 million in the early 1800’s to over 20 million by 1850. The westward expansion was just beginning to be covered by photographers.

Early photographers or daguerreotypists lugged heavy equipment and photography required difficult and tedious photo processing. Because of the slow shutter speeds and primitive camera lenses, early photography was limited to landscapes and scenes that didn’t move.

By 1851 the “collodion wet plate process” significantly advanced photography. The wet plate process provided a negative. This was used to make copies of the original image, unlike a daguerreotype or ambrotype which was a one-off photograph. By 1860 the daguerreotype process had pretty much ended. Thomas Martin Easterly was one of the few that never made the switch from daguerreotypes.

Thomas Martin Easterly 1809-1882

Thomas Martin Easterly 1809-1882

Thomas Martin Easterly (October 3, 1809 – March 12, 1882) was one of the earliest photographers (daguerreotypists) to become prominent in the preserving of the Native American culture.

Thomas Easterly was born in Guilford, Vermont and he came from a poor farming background. It was reported he left home at age 18. Starting out as a calligrapher in the eastern states, by the late 1849’s he became an experienced daguerreotypist and photographer. Like most early photographers, he mainly concentrated on scenic and landscape photography. He soon found out, there wasn’t much money to be made from this form of photography and soon moved into portraits. His style was unique in that he posed his subjects for the most detail to facial features and style of dress. He used none of the background props that were becoming so popular. He wanted to accurately record the people and their culture. This is shown in his early daguerreotypes of Native Americans.

Easterly Daguerreotype Studio 1849
Osh-u-ton (aka Winding Stream) – Sac & Fox – 1890
An early portrait of Chief Keokuk 1847

Chief Keokuk was a Sac Fox chief. He is wearing a headdress and bear claws around his neck. His stern expression and piercing eyes show the type of portrait Easterly tried to capture. Keokuk was chief of the Sauk tribe in central North America and was noted for his cooperation with the U.S. government which led to war with the Black Hawk tribe. Chief Keokuk was not opposed to the advance of the white men. The Chief and his followers
eventually moved west of the Mississippi River, and then moved farther, to a reservation in Kansas, where Keokuk died in 1848.

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Joel E. Whitney

Joel Emmons Whitney 1822-1886

Joel E. Whitney was born in Maine around 1892. Whitney was one of Minnesota’s earliest photographers. Like Thomas Easterly, he started working with daguerreotypes but unlike Easterly he soon adapted to the wet plate photography process. This enabled him to make prints and to take advantage of the very popular cartes de visite’s or cdv’s. The wet plate
process produced a negative, making it possible to make copies from an original photo.

Whitney’s Native American images became very popular with the people joining the westward migration, who sent them home to people not making the journey.

Unfortunately, many photos portrayed a negative image of the Native American population. Portraits of chief’s and warriors seemed to always contain war paint and weapons. Villages tended to show the Native Americans as cowering and suspicious people.

Whitney was also one of the first photographers to introduce the Stereo card to his customers. The stereograph consisted of two identical photos placed side by side, a slight distance apart on a cardboard backing. When viewed through a stereoscope the image appeared as a three-dimensional image.

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Peter Britt 1819-1905

Peter Britt was born in Glarus, Switzerland in 1819. Like many who would soon become American citizens seeking a new life, his younger years were spent working on the family farm. He developed skill in drawing and would earn meager amounts doing portraits.

In 1845 he immigrated to the United States. Like so many portrait artists they were faced with serious competition from daguerreotype photographers. Seeing the potential of photography, he studied this new technology and quickly became a skilled photographer. He also saw that daguerreotypes were rapidly being replaced by wet plate negative technology and made the change.

Britt moved to Oregon in 1852, bitten by the Gold Rush bug. In 1856 he opened his photo studio. While Portraits were his main business, he documented much of Oregon’s beautiful countryside.

This was Britt’s first wet plate photo. While maintaining the simple Native American image he continued the narrative that all Native Americans carried guns. His early portraits did show the deep penetrating eyes and somber expression of most of the Native American photos. Britt did modernize by adding a prop chair.

Britt soon took a more stylish approach to his work. Adding background props tended to take away the honesty and natural feeling of the images.

Frank Bennett Fiske 1883-1952

Frank Bennette Fiske was born on the Fort Bennett military fort in 1883 located in the southern Dakota Territory. In 1888 Frank and his family moved to Fort Yates where he attended school with the Sioux Native American children. His early childhood experiences with the Sioux children helped form a positive opinion of Native Americans that stayed with him throughout his lifetime.

The Fiske family moved to a ranch, however, Fiske decided to stay at Fort Yates. At the early age of 17, he opened a photo studio on the base. He had developed a deep appreciation of the people and culture of the Sioux.


Frank Fiske’s Native American portraits show a concern for his subjects. Unlike the stiff poses and flat lighting of other photographers, he used controlled lighting to bring out the best in his subjects. Rather than portraying the Native Americans as wild-eyed crazed warriors, his images showed the strength and pride of the people.

Having lived and been schooled with Sioux children and families, Frank Bennett Fiske brought a personal and compassionate approach to his photographic images. Fisk is my favorite photographic documenter of the Native Americans.

Fiske was a prolific photographer. Before his passing in 1952, he donated over 3500 of his negatives to the State Historical Society of North Dakota and over 7000 of his prints.

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Horace Poolaw Kiowa 1906-1952

Who better then to document the lives of Native Americans than a Native American? Horace Poolaw was a Kiowa Indian, born in 1906. He became a photographer by the age 17. For the rest of his life, he photographed and documented the life of Native American Indians from an insider’s perspective. Most of the documented narratives, photographic and written, were being created by non-Native Americans. Horace Poolaw was able to portray the real conditions and lifestyles of his people. Transitioning from a traditional Native American style to what was considered the norm by the white settlers was extremely difficult for an indigenous Native American people. Poolaw’s photographs show humor, drama and sometimes sadness. Horace Poolaw never made much money from his life as a photographer. He did leave an accurate record of the difficult changes forced on the Native American culture.

Robert and Linda Poolaw, children of Horace Poolaw ca.1947
Horace Poolaw (Kiowa), aerial photographer, and Gus Palmer (Kiowa), side gunner, inside a B-17 Flying Fortress, ca. 1944.
Can’t get much more American than this!
A family picnic on a Sunday afternoon.
This is a Horace Poolaw photo of Pascal C. Poolaw Sr holding the flag during an Honor Dance after his return from the Korean War.

Pascal also served in WWII and at the age of 45 returned to uniform to serve in Vietnam where he was killed in action. Pascal Poolaw was the most decorated Native American Indian to serve in the military.

Sadly, the documenting of Native American culture is limited. I did find one bright spot! Matika Wilbur was born north of Seattle, Washington. She is a member of the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes. Wilbur is using her photographic skills and her knowledge of Native American culture to replace the old stereotype images that pop up on internet searches.
Her first name in her tribal language is “messenger”. Very appropriate. She has a very nicely done blog that I will be following.

From the early daguerreotypist photographers to current documentary photographers like Matika Wilber, it’s important to remember and have a record of our past. And hopefully based on honesty and not stereotypes.

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