Native treasure

Haskell photos capture pivotal time in history

There’s something poetic about Frank A. Rinehart’s American Indian photos ending up at Haskell Indian Nations University.

He shot most of them during the Indian Congress at the 1898 world’s fair in Omaha, Neb., when prevailing sentiment held that Indians were a “vanishing” people who would soon be enveloped into white culture. That would happen at places such as Haskell Institute and other forced-assimilation schools, where native children were compelled to abandon their languages and customs in favor of English and “civilized” behavior.

But indigenous cultures, though wounded, have endured. And few places paint as clear a picture of their diversity as Haskell, now a four-year college with students representing more than 130 tribes.

For them, Rinehart’s photos offer a window to the past, a snapshot of their people at the turn of the 20th century.

Haskell has been home to the Rinehart Collection since 1975, when one of the photographer’s former lab assistants sold more than 800 of his glass-plate negatives to the university. Next month, 100 of those photos will be published in a book called “Beyond the Reach of Time and Change.” It’s the only place the photos are available for public viewing; the collection is temporarily inaccessible because the museum is without a curator.

Edited by renowned American Indian poet and scholar Simon Ortiz, the book pairs the century-old photos with essays by contemporary native scholars, some of whom are descendants of Rinehart’s subjects.

“The idea of preserving an image, to me, has value and currency when it’s preserved in the living culture: in the stories, in the memories, in the recollections,” said Ortiz, an English professor at the University of Toronto and a member of the Acoma Pueblo. “People are visualized through the imagination. This, of course, is very powerful, and this is the way that Indian people maintain their cultural spirit.”

‘Sense of dignity’

That spirit was weathering grave challenges in the late 19th century. The United States government had for several decades been rending tribes from their ancestral homes and relocating them to reservations. And though the more than 545 delegates who traveled to the Indian Congress were paid and came voluntarily, the government’s motives were paternalistic, said Bobbie Rahder, who worked with the Rinehart photos for a decade as archivist at Haskell.

“It was pretty much an effort to promote what the government was ‘doing’ for the Indians and an effort to show that the ‘Indian threat’ had been contained,” she said.

Nevertheless, the Congress — not a legislative gathering, but a living exhibit organized by the Bureau of Ethnology — proved somewhat educational.

“Each tribe … brought their own traditional clothing, their style of dwelling, their customs, their language, everything, and set up an encampment,” Rahder said. “It was good for the public to see that there were lots of different types of tribes and that they were all very different from each other.”

Rinehart and his assistant, Adolph Muhr, were hired to document the 1898 world’s fair, also known as the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition. The two had different styles. Rinehart, like most photographers of his era, preferred to use props and poses, sometimes to the detriment of ethnological accuracy. In some of the photos he took in his Omaha studio the year after the Indian Congress, subjects from different tribes erroneously wore the same shirt or headdress. He also tended to photograph Indians from a distance, “almost as if they were specimens,” Rahder said.

But in 1898, Rinehart stayed busy shooting buildings, spectators and other attractions, leaving Muhr to create most of the Indian portraits. He employed a more sensitive perspective than his boss, Rahder says.

“He really posed the people and gave them a sense of dignity in the photograph,” she said. “I really feel that you get a chance to understand them as people, and they are really speaking about their stories.”

Diverse tales

Some of those stories are told through the subject’s style of clothing or beadwork, which often revealed family or tribal traditions. They also could signify status. In the book, a Southern Arapahoe woman named Hannah Little Bear wears a dress adorned with 300 elk teeth. After conducting research, Rahder learned that tribes only decorated garments with “ivories,” or upper canines used for tearing meat. She also learned that elk only have two such teeth.

“So having 300 teeth on her dress meant her family took a lot of care of her,” said Rahder, now a lecturer at the Center for Indigenous Nations Studies at Kansas University. “That was their sense of wealth, was the clothing that they created. And the fact that she had men in her family who provided those 300 elk teeth meant that she was a very prosperous, fortunate woman.”

Other photos don’t give so much away at a glance.

A portrait of a young man named Bony Tela standing next to a young woman named Hattie Tom forms the veneer of a bittersweet love story. The two met in Omaha, Rahder said, and although they were both Apache, they were from two distinct bands of the tribe.

“She was very beautiful and she had, apparently, a lot of suitors who were interested in her at the Indian Congress. But he’s the one she fell in love with,” Rahder said. “What Rinehart writes is that … it ended up that neither one wanted to leave their own band of people to get together and marry, so they didn’t stay together. And I don’t know what happened to them after that.”

Finding meaning

The significance of the Rinehart Collection varies depending on whom you ask.

The book based on the work stands to draw attention to a very accomplished photographer, says Merry Foresta, director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where a less-complete set of Rinehart negatives is housed.

“In advance of photographers who were perhaps better known, like Edward Curtis, Rinehart’s portraits are really quite extraordinary and put him above the average workaday photographer who might have also made photographs for similar reasons,” she said. “There were other people working, but he seems to have really, because of the quality of his work, stood apart.”

For Terra Houska, an Oglala Lakotah student assistant at the Haskell museum, the photos Rinehart took of members of her tribe have provided hours of intriguing study.

“I like to look at them because it’s a way of looking at our history besides just reading it,” she said. “But I don’t know if what I’m seeing is real because they’re posing. I don’t know if it’s really who they are.”

And the opinions forwarded by essayists in “Beyond the Reach of Time and Change” are all over the map. Some feel they’re invading the privacy of ancestors by peering back in time through Rinehart’s images. Others see the photos as yet another effort by White America to define native people. Still others beam at the defiance and pride they see in snapshots taken at a time when it was difficult and unpopular to be Indian.

Of all the images in the collection, it is Kicking Horse Charley — a Flathead pictured with his mouth slightly open, “forever ready to speak” — who calls to essayist Debra Earling. She believes he calls to all of us.

“And because he is captured in this moment of intent,” she writes, “he is poised to speak for all time.”

“Beyond the Reach of Time and Change: Native American Reflections on the Frank A. Rinehart Photograph Collection,” edited by American Indian poet and scholar Simon Ortiz with an introduction by former Haskell Indian Nations University archivist Bobbi Rahder, will be released April 7 by University of Arizona Press.Ortiz will be in Lawrence to deliver a lecture, “War on Terror,” at 7 p.m. April 13 in the Hall Center Conference Hall.