Mathers Museum

Reading Photographs: History

Alhough many of the Dixon's photographs were intended to represent a timeless romantic view of the American Indian, they also document the contemporary conditions of the early 20th century.

By the 20th century, many Indian people were living in European style cabins, although many still used tipis and tents in the summer or for ceremonies [W229]. However, not all Indian families had escaped the poverty of reservation life. [W5778]
Clothing Styles The decoration of formal Indian clothing by the Plains Indians reached a peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Unfortunately, understanding the range and creativity of this decorative trend has been hampered by the limited number of such pieces in museum collections. However, the technical quality, as well as the sheer quantity, of the Wanamaker Collection allows a detailed examination and comparison of clothing styles and decorations.

Crow beadworkers at the turn of the century used the two-thread "overlay stitch" to produce flat and tight design fields. On beaded strips, large blocks of solid color were broken by panels of contrasting design.
Wolf Lies Down (Crow) [W282]

In contrast, Lakota Sioux beadwork used the single thread "lazy stitch" to produce ridged lanes which carry the design elements. Lakota designs were often complex combinations of geometric shapes, lines, and colors.
Jack Red Cloud, Oglala Lakota [W1665]

Mrs. Wolf Plume wears a wool dress with silk ribbon decorations at the hem. The yoke is decorated with large "pony beads." Thimbles are used as tinklers.

Bessie Standing Elk and Theresa Scalp Cane (Northern Cheyenne) wear woolen trade cloth dresses decorated with dentalium shells at the yoke. Half-inch metal sequins, studs, metal fringe, and silk ribbon are additional decorations.

Although Plains Indian men quickly adopted European style clothes for everyday wear (note Mountain Chief), women's everyday wear was often an adaptation of traditional clothing using new materials. Ms. Ursula Rock (Crow) wears a plain calico "camp dress" and a commercial fringed blanket. She carries her baby in a Northern Cheyenne- or Lakota-style soft baby carrier.

Domestic activities
Although most of the Wanamaker Collection photographs are posed portaits, the collection also includes photographs of many traditional domestic activities which continued into the twentieth century.

One of the tasks involved in making quillwork was pulling the long hair quills from a porcupine's tail.
[W883] Buffalo, horse, and even dog hair could be braided into ropes.

Sources of Research Questions

Photographs can also be the starting point for research. For instance, in this picture Joseph Ratunda, a young Nez Perce, wears a pin labeled "First National Indian Congress, Spokane Fair, Sept 13-21, 1913." Little more is known about this "Congress"; was it a Wild West Show dance performance, implied by Ratunda's dance outfit?, or was it part of the emergent Indian political consciousness of the early twentieth century?
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Last updated: 8 August 1996
Copyright 1996, The Trustees of Indiana University