The 100 Best Historical Photos of the American Indian
Alfred Jacob Miller, George Catlin, John Mix Stanley and Karl Bodmer’s romantic illustrations of America’s frontier Indians were matchless eyewitness portrayals until the advent of the camera.
Thomas Easterly is credited as the first to photograph American Indians in the United States, in March 1847, when he took daguerreotypes of Chief Keokuk and other Sauk and Fox Indians who had traveled from present-day Kansas to St. Louis, Missouri.
Government expeditions and private enterprises in the 1850s produced our earliest photos of Indians in their frontier environs. Commissioned in 1857 by photographer John H. Fitzgibbon to paint Panorama of Kansas and the Indian Nations, artist Carl Wimar went on ambrotyping tours that captured images of Upper Missouri tribes. Doubling as the official photographer for the 1859 William F. Raynolds expedition of the Yellowstone region in Montana and Wyoming, topographer James Dempsey Hutton captured images of the Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes.
Since each daguerreotype could only be reproduced by making a camera copy of it, the technology progressed in the 1850s to a wet plate process that allowed for prints to be made from a negative. Within two decades, expedition and commercial cameramen had transformed the visual documentation of the frontier and brought its native peoples into American culture.
Although photos taken by outsiders present a perspective different than the Indian subjects’, they are still important in sharing the tribal historical record. As Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko wrote in her 1981 book Storyteller, “The photographs are here because they are a part of many of the stories, and because many of the stories can be traced in these photographs.”
Among the treasures that stemmed from these pioneer efforts, we have chosen 100 of the best historical photographs of the American Indian. The journey has already started, with our Opening Shot, and continues throughout the magazine. Enjoy!
Frank Fiske’s Tamed Sioux
At the age of six, Frank Fiske experienced death. Along with his pals, he “blazed about the ‘dead house,’” he wrote, adding “Whenever the door was opened we would risk a ‘look’ and I can still recall the body as it lay upon a table while the post surgeons performed an autopsy to determine just who killed him.”
That body was Sitting Bull’s. Children at Fort Yates had been dismissed from school so they could see it in the morgue. Famous for leading his people in resistance against U.S. government policies, only to end up subdued on the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas, the Lakota medicine man had been killed by Indian Police during an attempted arrest to dissuade Sitting Bull from joining the Ghost Dance movement.
Fiske’s father, the wagon master, witnessed Sitting Bull’s coffin lowered into the grave, heard “Retreat” sounded by the post buglers and then recorded in his notes: “With the end of Sitting Bull a permanent peace came to abide in the Sioux country and fighting became a lost art.”
The passage of only two weeks would prove him wrong. On December 29, 1890, Lakota followers who had been herded into a camp found themselves disarmed by 7th Cavalry troops. Somehow, during a scuffle with Black Coyote, his rifle fired; the military opened fire indiscriminately, killing men, women, children, even some of their own—about 150 Lakota and 25 soldiers died, with more dying later from their wounds.
That year full of horrific carnage never left Fiske’s mind. He would grow up with Lakotas as his classmates, and he made them his subjects when he apprenticed under post photographer Stephen Fansler. When his master left in 1900, Fiske took over. When the post was abandoned three years later, Fiske continued to photograph the Sioux—Rain In The Face, White Bull, Mary Crawler. In all, he produced nearly 8,000 known photographs. He documented the Sioux as they were—often wearing a mixture of modern dress and traditional dress. His Indians celebrated weddings, graduations, birth ceremonies, cattle drives and rodeos. He didn’t re-create a tribal life that no longer existed, just the bare truth. Every wrinkle. Every bead. Every detail rich in life and color can be glimpsed in his period images.
Fiske lived most of his life among the Sioux in Fort Yates, dying a month after his 69th birthday. The State Historical Society of North Dakota preserves his collection of pioneer photographs.
Six Degrees of Separation: Sitting Bull Edition
Sitting Bull, the Lakota medicine man tragically shot dead by Indian Police at Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas in December 1890, was the uncle of White Bull, who contributed much to Stanley Vestal’s biography of Sitting Bull. Next to him is his brother, One Bull. The brothers joined forces with their uncle during the Battle of the Little Big Horn and fled with him to Canada before surrendering in North Dakota.
An outline of Frank Fiske’s photograph of Red Tomahawk is the symbol of the North Dakota Highway Patrol. Red Tomahawk went with the Indian Police to arrest Sitting Bull. After Lt. Henry Bullhead fired his revolver into Sitting Bull’s left side, Red Tomahawk allegedly shot the medicine man in the head.
Gall, one of Sitting Bull’s trusted lieutenants, spent nearly four years with the medicine man as an exile in Canada. But Gall and John Grass would split from the ranks, resigning themselves to reservation life. Sitting Bull was more defiant. When Gall signed his name to the Sioux Act passed in 1889, which gave away even more Sioux land, a disappointed Sitting Bull reportedly said, “There are no Indians left but me.”
C.S. Fly’s Geronimo
When Camillus S. Fly settled in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, in December 1879, he immediately opened up a photography studio. Fly found fame through the photographs he took in March 1886, when Fly accompanied Gen. George Crook to a negotiation with Apache warrior Geronimo—the best known of all American Indians. The only existing photographs taken of an Indian still actively at war with the United States, Fly’s photos include the one showing Geronimo (above, far right) with a few of his warriors. After Fly’s death in 1901, his wife published a collection of his work, Scenes in Geronimo’s Camp.
After roughly 30 years of raids in Mexico and the American Southwest, Geronimo surrendered, for the last time, that September. He and his people were imprisoned in Florida and, ultimately, in 1894, moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma Territory. Geronimo never saw his homeland again. Before he reached his 80th birthday, he died of pneumonia at Fort Sill in 1909.