American Indians have long occupied a strange place in the white imagination, dating back to the days of New World exploration. Both Continental artists, many of whom never crossed the Atlantic, and early Americans painted light-skinned, European-looking "Indians," symbolizing with this "noble savage" proto-American ideas of freedom and idyllic harmony with nature.
Centuries later, the Anglo consciousness remains just as dependent on Indian iconography. Generations of moviegoers grew up on cowboy-and-Indian flicks, where indigenous people represented the danger and treachery inside the American soul. Today, New Age-infused Hollywood serves up a different Indian: the quasi-mystical sage who taps into ancient wisdom for the sake of the misguided Anglo actor.
With "Native to the Land: Photography and the North American Indian, 1870-1930," SFMOMA attempts to peel back the symbolism of the Indian by assembling some 80 images dating from the time of Custer's Last Stand to that of the Great Depression. The exhibition catalogs America's shifting perspectives of Native Americans during the period of the Western Indians' greatest decline -- and photography's ascendance.
As photography changed the nature of representation, a handful of its practitioners plied Western landscapes for images of aboriginal cultures. Western expansion continued at a great pace following the Civil War, and photographs from that era depicted a vast, open land ripe for exploitation. Occasionally, a solitary and benign-looking Native American might make up part of the backdrop, but here the Indian was mere scenery. Later on, as the influx of Anglo settlers and the government's assimilate/decimate program destroyed many native communities, photographers hoped to snap eulogies to disappearing cultures. As such, the images of "Native to the Land" reveal as much about the white imagination and its idea of the Indian as they do about Native Americans.
Irish-born Timothy H. O'Sullivan, for example, took part in survey expeditions of Nevada and Utah from 1867 to 1874, shooting stereographic images (those nifty side-by-side photos that look 3-D when viewed through a stereoscope) of Indians. Sold commercially, O'Sullivan's stereographs introduced Indians to many people who would never meet one.
Perhaps best known among the photographers in the exhibit is Edward S. Curtis (especially after last year's bio doc Coming to Light), who abandoned life in Seattle to spend nearly three decades documenting American Indian subjects. In his effort to depict what he feared would soon be gone -- what in many cases was already gone -- Curtis sometimes staged his photos, asking nontraditional Indians to don costumes and pose nobly in the face of their imminent demise. Curtis' photographic records of 80-odd tribes are sometimes the only documents of those peoples in existence. Logging 40,000 images between 1900 and 1928, Curtis later assembled the 20-volume encyclopedic tome The North American Indian.
"Native to the Land" also includes the work of two chroniclers of Southwestern Indians. John K. Hillers' images of the Pueblo share wall space with those of Adam Clark Vroman, who, after years spent in Zuni, Hopi, Pueblo, and Navajo villages, became an ardent critic of America's assimilationist policies toward Indians. Although his voice remained unheard by history, his pictures still bear witness to the traditions he hoped to preserve.