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Through Native Lenses: American Indian Vernacular Photographies and Performances of Memories, 1890-1940


At the turn of the twentieth century, photographers like Edward Curtis were creating romanticized images of Americans Indians. Far from merely serving as camera fodder, however, Native Americans during this period were independently producing their own photographic records. This dissertation offers a critical overview of how Native North Americans appropriated photography and integrated it into their ways of life in the second half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, both as patrons who commissioned portraits and as photographers who created collections. In this study, I investigate the practices through which Native-produced photographs have become entangled in a set of performative acts of remembrance that have helped sustain and generate tribal histories. The primary sources under investigation are early snapshots dating to approximately 1890 to 1940, created for and by indigenous peoples throughout the United States and Canada. By arguing that these photographs stand as counter-images to the hegemonic visual histories of their peoples, I demonstrate that Native-produced images undermine dominant narratives while simultaneously endorsing their own tribal histories. My goal is to prove that "Native American photography" as practiced by and for Native Americans is profoundly different than photography practiced by contemporary non-Natives.

To help support these claims, I provide two case studies of amateur Native photographies that have become part of their cultural consciousness by virtue of being displayed in their respective community museums. Unlike most domestic images, the photographs taken by Jennie Ross Cobb (Cherokee) and George Johnston (Inland Tlingit) were neither bequeathed to family members nor gifted to friends. Instead, these photographers donated their images to aid in the foundation of new museums in their respective tribal communities. In the case of George Johnston, the eponymous museum in Teslin, Yukon Territory, was built to hold and preserve the photographs, while the pictures by Jennie Ross Cobb contributed to the efforts to valorize and restore the historic George M. Murrell Home in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where they are now displayed. These localized, self-contained collections allow for an unprecedented look at how vernacular photographs work within indigenous communities to perform and recover memories.

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