Framing the past
In the late 1800s, white photographers realized that there was money to be made by heading into the Old West to photograph the rapidly fading world of “cowboys and Indians.”
At the time, Indigenous peoples of the United States were being forced from their traditional lands at gunpoint and exiled to remote reserves to begin the process of “becoming civilized.”
Some photographers were sympathetic to the plight of First Peoples, but others saw their subjects as commodities to be exploited.
Today, the thousands of photos taken during this era offer a skewed vision of the past. The vast majority of images were shot by white photographers who framed the discussion and cropped out the inconvenient truth. The subjects of these photos were often told to pose with props, such as tomahawks and peace pipes, to enhance their “Indianness.”
The images reinforced white stereotypes of the “vanishing Indian” while turning a blind eye to the plight of dispossessed Aboriginal peoples.
In this issue, we feature a story on one of the most famous — and most photographed — Indigenous leaders of the nineteenth century: Sitting Bull.
The Lakota Sioux war chief famously defeated American Lieutenant Colonel George Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of the Greasy Grass ( also known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn or Custer’s Last Stand) in 1876. The conflict was a seminal moment in American history — but it was a crucial moment in Canadian history, too.
After the fight, Sitting Bull and his followers sought refuge in Canada, igniting an intense debate between Canada and the United States over border sovereignty and transborder Indigenous rights.
In selecting our cover image, as well as the interior feature photos, we needed to consider the troubling legacy of nineteenthcentury photography of Indigenous peoples.
The commercialization, cultural appropriation and outright exploitation involved in producing some of the photos are subjects of debate in academic and Indigenous communities.
For guidance, I spoke to Mark Holman, a member of the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota. Standing Rock is the ancestral home of Sitting Bull as well as his burial place.
Holman is the library director and photo archivist for Sitting Bull College, which is operated by the Lakota/Dakota Nation and is home to the largest collection of Sitting Bull photos in the world.
Holman says the Lakota/Dakota are certainly aware of the problematic nature of early photos of Indigenous peoples.
“They understand the context,” he said. “They are products of the history at the time, colonizers coming in and basically taking what they wanted from Sitting Bull and the Lakota people, and defining it in the colonizers’ way.”
Despite this, these photos are still valued for what they symbolize.
“The photos are an inspiration,” Holman said. “Sitting Bull is a symbol of that time, when ... the Lakota/Dakota Nation was up against the United States, fighting for land and life. He’s a symbol of that resistance. A guy who stood up and said no!”
On another level, these photos also represent family: cousins, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents. As such, they are to be cherished and shared.
“People are glad that somebody has taken these pictures, no matter the context,” Holman said. “People are just happy to get a photo of their ancestor.”
For Canada’s History, these primary-source materials offer valuable insights into historical relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. But they need to be treated with sensitivity and considered in the context of the era in which they were taken.
Hopefully, these photos will encourage further dialogue and understanding among all Canadians.