‘Through a Native Lens: American Indian Photography’

REVIEW: Ridge Writers on Books

By Nicole Dawn Strathman, 228 pgs., photos, indexed, University of Oklahoma Press, hardcover, 2020, $50.00



Photographers at the turn of the twentieth century captured romanticized views of Native Americans. They emphasized salvaging, showcasing, and often staging a vanishing culture. The leaned heavily on stereotypes, less so on faithful understanding.

Yet before that, American Indians recognized the value of using cameras to record their daily activities and memorialize tribal members. They snapped pictures of friends, family, personal belongings, and special occasions. Author and art historian Stratham has gathered hundreds, of and by indigenous people of the U.S. and Canada, essentially from the first hundred years of the medium, between 1840 and 1940.

Sarah Winnemucca posed for one. The most famous Native woman in the country at the time, Winnemucca gave a public speaking tour of the Northeast with more than 300 lectures on the plight of her people and unfair government practices.

Some celebrated Native figures profited financially from posing for the lens. Apache leader Geronimo could name his price. He had a sliding scale of fees, ranging from ten cents for a shot with an ordinary hand camera, to twenty-five for a session involving a tripod, and considerably more if he stepped into a studio. He wrote in his autobiography that at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, “I sold my photographs for twenty-five cents. I also wrote my name for ten, fifteen, or twenty-five cents…. I often made as much as two dollars a day, and when I returned, I had plenty of money, more than I ever owned before.” The Sioux chief Sitting Bull, a headliner in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, negotiated a contract that gave him exclusive rights to sell his image.

Drawing from tribal and state archives, libraries, museums, and individual collections, Stratham pays reasonable attention to the commercial, popularized, and idealized, while focusing on work by professional, semiprofessional, and amateur Native Americans who portrayed what mattered to them. “Through a Native Lens” delivers handsomely on its title. We see men, women, and children at home or out socializing, some casual, and some formal – about which Choctaw/Cherokee Louis Owens said, “they serve to remind me of who I was and therefore am.”

This monthly column is written by members of Ridge Writers, the East Sierra Branch of the California Writers Club. Other than during the Covid-19 crisis, meetings are held the first Thursday evening of each month at Ridgecrest Presbyterian Church and free programs are offered throughout the year. Ridge Writers’ books “Scenes from Lives of Service: High Desert Veterans of WWI through Desert Storm” and “Planet Mojave: Visions from a World Apart” are available at the Historic USO Building, Jawbone Canyon, Maturango Museum, and Red Rock Books.

Story First Published: 2020-07-24