Maybe it would have been impossible to fit them all into one frame. All five hundred delegates stacked into a single group portrait, an epic souvenir of every Native American who participated in the Indian Congress in Omaha, Nebraska in 1898. So the official photographers didn’t. Frank A. Rinehart and Adolph F. Muhr took individual studio portraits instead, using their 8 by 10-inch glass negative camera to create platinum prints that are now considered among the most comprehensive photo documentations of Native American leaders at the turn of the twentieth century.
The Indian Congress was an unprecedented gathering of Indigenous American people, with thirty-five participating tribes. So how do you miss an opportunity like that to take a group photo? Was it impossible, or was there another reason? After all, the Indian Congress did have an agenda. It overlapped with the Trans-Mississippi International Exposition—a fair boasting the development of the American West (often at the expense of tribes represented by the men and women who appear in Rinehart and Muhr’s portraits). Showing the country’s Indigenous people on such a stately scale might have sent a mixed message, for the fair organizers.
What we do see in Rinehart and Muhr’s photographs are figures like Geronimo, White Swan, and Red Cloud. We see chiefs of the Apache, Pueblo, Plains, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, and Lakota tribes—many tribes meeting each other for the first time. We see them alone, or sometimes in small groups, in a studio with an artificial backdrop. The solo format lets us look at the sometimes-named, sometimes-not delegates closely, study the lines on their faces and the features of their clothes. But it also effaces the bigger picture.
In Wendy Red Star’s installation Indian Congress (2021), created as a site-specific work for the Joslyn Art Museum, which is just a few miles from where the historic congress took place, she puts the delegates back together again. Excising them out of their unnatural settings one by one with a knife, she reframes these images that told a less-than-truthful story in black-and-white.
As she does in her other work, Red Star offers new ways of seeing historic photographs—especially ones that relate to her Apsáalooke heritage. Looking at the delegates together, instead of apart, we notice patterns we’d never grasp in solitary portraits. The members of one of the delegations are all holding the same bags, and another delegation is all wearing the same war bonnets. Another tribe all has the same blankets. These are handmade pieces that tie them to each other and to a shared culture, easily erased when we see them as isolated individuals.
Red Star gathers the delegates together again on a tiered stage and against a colorful new backdrop she created from a photograph she took of Baáhpuuo, a sacred rock on the Crow reservation believed to house the keepers of the earth. The Indian Congress faces the viewer, and the viewer must face the complicated entirety of the Indian Congress.