ANN ARBOR – A new collection recently acquired by the University of Michigan William L. Clements Library features rare photographs of Native Americans during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Famous figures like Geronimo, Red Cloud and Sitting Bull appear in several photographs, but the collection also documents every day life for more than 70 different First Nations.
The photographs come from noted collector Richard Pohrt Jr. and are the latest addition to the Clements’ vast archive of early American history. More than 1,000 images taken mainly between 1860 and 1920 were captured by more than 150 photographers. Many of the photographs come from the original negatives.
According to the library’s curator of graphics material Clayton Lewis, the era marks one of the darkest times in Native American history.
“The violence, impoverishment, disempowerment and forced cultural assimilation related to United States Indian removal policies and the establishment of reservations and boarding schools are among the major themes represented by these photographs,” Lewis said in a statement. “However, the cultural complexity of the communities, the quality of the material culture, the dignity and resilience of leaders, and aspects of rituals and everyday life are also well documented in the Pohrt Collection.”
The library’s team has consulted with several Native American cultural representatives and scholars and the university’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act representative since many images are culturally sensitive.
“This collection is already so extraordinarily rich because of all of the information that comes with it -- names, times, dates and places where the photos were taken -- as well as Richard’s expertise in Native American art and material culture,” he said. “The advisers that we’ve been working with are providing even more information and guidance about their context, which will make it a one-of-a-kind resource for both scholars and for Native American people looking to reconnect with their past.”
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Eric Hemenway, the director of archives and records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, is one of the consultants who described his experience pouring through the photographs as bittersweet.
“As a historian, I try to gather as many pieces of evidence as possible to tell our complete story, so I was excited to see photos of my ancestors in this collection,” Hemenway said in a statement. “But it’s like a hammer hitting a piece of glass and watching it shatter -- we’ll never be able to fully put it all back together again because there was a concentrated effort to destroy Native history, language, traditions and religions."
Hemenway hopes learning opportunities can be created using the material to help rebuild the Native American narrative during this time period.
“When I look at these photos, I see a bigger picture: at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, I see people that are not considered citizens, who cannot vote, who are in boarding schools, on the fringes of society,” he said in a statement. "We literally disappeared from the mainstream record after these were taken, and I want people to know that we’re still here and that we’re an important part of America’s story.
“I really appreciate that the Clements has included Native advisers in this conversation, to ask us how we interpret the collection and to make connections with other resources. This is something that hasn’t really been happening at American institutions during the last century.”
Clements Library staff have been meticulously working to verify the collection’s visual information.
“Even though the Pohrt photos contain a lot of information, there have still been many misidentifications and errors,” Jakob Dopp, Clements Library graphics division cataloger said in a statement. “We are very conscious of the possibility of inadvertently perpetuating historical errors, and given that there is a long history of this with Native cultures, we want to get it right if we possibly can.”
Pohrt, a collector and scholar of Native American art and material, began collecting the photographs nearly two decades ago. The historical context of the images fascinated him, and he developed a deep interest in learning more about their context and who they represented.
“There are a couple of different ways you can look at this collection,” Pohrt said in a statement. “These photographs, which are really breathtaking, can be used to study the history of photography, and more importantly, the opening of the West, and the great transformations that took place during the second half of the 19th century.”
Pohrt plans to add to the collection in the years to come.