For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw
National Museum of the American Indian, New York
August 9, 2014 – February 15, 2015
The history of the representation of Native Americans has been, until recently, overwhelmingly one-sided. Capturing the indigenous peoples of this continent through images was the purview of the colonizer, the outsider, the anthropologists, and the government officials and painters who had the technological and material means to represent the “Indian” as they saw him. The results of these outsider perspectives are by now well known; the image of the Indian constructed by the likes of George Catlin and Edward Curtis fed the Euro-American imagination with depictions of romantically savage yet noble peoples, in need of documentation before their cultures vanished. As these representations became Hollywood tropes and hardened stereotypes, the relationship between Native Americans and photography—the medium perhaps most responsible for contorting the representation of indigenous peoples—has been nothing but complex.
The work of Horace Poolaw (1906 – 84), a Kiowa photographer who captured the lives of his people and community over many dynamically transformative decades in the middle of the 20th century, is thus utterly important for shifting the history of the representation of Native Americans from an outsider perspective to that of the insider. The exhibition presents a lifetime of Poolaw’s work, offering an intimate insider perspective on an era of Native American life that history otherwise left invisible.
The exhibition, curated by Tom Jones (Ho-Chunk) and Nancy Marie Mithlo (Chiricahua Apache), is based on the Poolaw Photography Project, a research initiative established by Poolaw’s daughter, Linda. The presence of Poolaw’s family is felt throughout the exhibition. Personal quotations accompany the ever-present images of Poolaw’s closest relations, contributing to the feeling that this is almost as much a family photo album as it is a museum exhibition. This intimate setting underscores the show’s central tenet of representing a community from the perspective of a familiar insider. Nowhere is this more visible than in the first section of portraits; a photograph of young Kiowa/Caddo girl Vivian Bigbow is closely shot at her level as the clearly comfortable young child smiles patiently. Taken at the 1945 American Indian Exposition, Vivian sports a cowgirl hat and boots and stands in front of the grill of a Ford De Luxe auto, the first hint of Poolaw’s unwavering dedication to capturing his subjects as they are rather than as they are expected to be. Vivian’s country get-up and traditional woven vest are juxtaposed with a nearby 1929 portrait of Poolaw’s son, Jerry, who, dressed up in a miniature tweed suit, makes for quite the young gentleman. Such images, honestly portraying Kiowa children in contemporary dress and next to modern technology, are far removed from the more prominent tourist photographs of Native Americans of the time. Unlike the outsiders looking to capture the “authentic” Indian, Poolaw turned his camera on the actual lives of his community.
The juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern is a running theme in the exhibition, yet Poolaw’s work demonstrates that a division between the two is as false as the outsider’s pursuit of the authentic. The photograph “Unidentified Dancer at the American Indian Exposition” (1957) depicts a young man in a traditional feathered dance costume. A convertible is visible just over his shoulder, providing a modern context despite a costume some might want to read as timeless. Nancy Marie Mithlo writes that the dancer “is not ‘caught in two worlds’ or ‘struggling to enter the mainstream,’ nor is he ‘in transition’ from traditional to modern. Rather, he is both traditional and modern; in occupying that space, he defies the terms and their utility.” Poolaw’s work, Mithlo rightly points out, is an opportunity to move beyond the division between tradition and modernity that allowed Native Americans to be romantically represented as frozen in the timeless past. Instead, we see the dancer as a man who embraces his heritage and traditions as part of his modern and dynamic indigenous identity.
Poolaw’s work consistently challenges the notion that Native Americans were ever separate in time and place from their Euro-American neighbors and peers, best seen in the exhibition’s section “Social Landscape: People of the Plains.” Photographs of weddings, community meetings, and fishing trips reveal a tightly integrated community. A 1960 photograph “The Wedding of Victor Palmer and Wiladean Momaday”shows Kiowa and non-Kiowa community members on both sides of the aisle, everyone dressed in their best wedding attire. These photographs also draw exquisitely relevant juxtapositions with our own time; photos of the all-Native American sports teams from Poolaw’s community, like the “Carnegie Indians Baseball Team” (1933), remind us of how absurd the ongoing defense of outdated and racist sports team names really is.
In the exhibition’s introduction, the curators ask whether Poolaw was an artist or a documentarian, whether he was commenting on the complex cross-cultural exchanges that his photos reveal or merely capturing them. The works on display solidly affirm the former in both cases, most particularly in the revealing posed photos of his family. A 1947 photo of his children, Robert and Linda, shows the two in cowboy hats and bandanas, posed with toy six-shooters at the ready. The wall text tells us that Poolaw dressed them up in the costume when they got off the school bus and posed them, capturing an image that turns the children’s game of Cowboys and Indians on its head in a complex reversal of positions. In another example, Bruce Poolaw, Horace’s rodeo-star brother who performed under the name “Chief Poolaw” for a Wild West vaudeville show, is photographed in a jaunty pose, wearing a somewhat traditional-looking vest over his rodeo outfit. The vest is in fact a prop seen in multiple of Poolaw’s photos and evidence to how posed many of them really are. Moreso than the candid documentary shots of community events, these posed photographs point to an important message of Poolaw’s work: there is no singular authentic image of any people but what one presents of oneself. Poolaw’s most delightful images juxtapose the modern and traditional, such as the images from his time as a World War II aerial-photographer which show him in both feathered headdress and military jumpsuit next to a bomber plane. Yet one can sense the self-awareness of Poolaw’s insider images. His photographs display a consciousness of the meanings such juxtapositions create.
Poolaw’s ultimate commentary on the insider versus outsider perspective comes from a work in the final section of the exhibition, titled “Photographers Taking Pictures of Children Dancing at the American Indian Exposition”(1950). It captures a crowd of white spectators turned towards a group of indigenous children dancing in traditional dress, busily photographing their performance. By taking the photographers as his subject, Poolaw highlights the act of outsider representation. This image shows why the decades of Kiowa life photographed by Poolaw are considered an invisible era in Native American history; the outsiders only captured the easily digestible representations of traditional culture that fit into their preconceived notions of what an “Indian” was supposed to look like. In great contrast are Poolaw’s photos of the annual Indian Exposition Parade. Here we see the Kiowa in traditional garb, smiling and waving from the tops of cars as they are driven through the streets. Poolaw represents his own people as they are: a modern community who have adapted to the tumultuous changes and transitions of the mid-20th century, through which they consistently bore an overwhelming pride in their culture and heritage. In doing so, Poolaw is a valuable example of an insider artist who was an active agent in the creation of the visual identity of his people.
CHRISTOPHER GREEN is a writer based in New York and a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center.