A Northern Cheyenne Album by Margot Liberty

Authors


Norman, OK : University of Oklahoma Press , 2006 . 286 pp.

A Northern Cheyenne Album reproduces 142 photos taken by Dr. Thomas B. Marquis, a physician who lived and worked on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation from 1922 until his death in 1935. They were selected from a collection of about five hundred Marquis negatives originally given by Marquis' daughters, Minnie Ellen Hastings and Anna Rose Heil, to John Woodenlegs, a well-known political and religious leader of the Northern Cheyenne. Today this collection of images is in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center Museum in Cody, Wyoming. Although the quality of the photographs varies, in general they are good. Some have ethnographic significance (e.g., see plate 28: Woodenlegs making sketches in his ledger book; plate 37: the inside of a Medicine Lodge showing dancers being painted; and plate 79: Turkey Legs' wife scraping the inside of a hide), and some illustrate themes of relationship, kinship, and intergenerational ties (e.g., plate 59: Shell Woman and her daughter Annie; and plate 80: a family portrait of visitors from the Southern Cheyenne community in Oklahoma).

The written text that accompanies each photograph is one of the most impressive aspects of this book. Marquis' pictures themselves do not “say” anything. It is the people that talk about them that make them significant.1 The photographs were captioned by John Woodenlegs from his own memories and from interviews with other Northern Cheyenne from the 1960s through 1981. These captions are for the most part substantively informative, including the names of individuals who could be identified as well as the date when each photograph was made. The captions capture what the Cheyenne see in the photographs. Frequently repeated in Woodenlegs' captions is the comment that these people are “looking good,” are “all good people,” or that the image is “a good picture” (e.g., plate 137). I find this meaningful in that the purpose of most Euro-American photographers was to make their subjects pose in such a manner as to make them look good. That Marquis succeeded for both Euro-American as well as Northern Cheyenne viewers is, I think, admirable. Perhaps this is the ultimate compliment given by the Cheyenne to this non-indigenous photographer. The narrative captions flow with a sense of oral discourse that gives much insight into Northern Cheyenne life of the early 20th century. They also sometimes reveal a native sense of humor, such as in plate 131 depicting a man named Lost Leg wearing a vest of spotted hide standing next to his pinto horse, on which Woodenlegs comments “He and his horse both look like they are pintos”; and plate 128 showing old man Big Crow trying to give a baby a bottle while shooing away flies with a piece of cloth. Interesting supplemental captions presenting ethnographic and historical facts were supplied by anthropologist Margot Liberty.

In general, the book lacks information concerning the photographer's goals and purposes in taking the photographs and about the ways that he used these images. One intriguing insight is found in Woodenlegs' caption to plate 44, “Four Good Cheyennes,”—Laban Little Wolf, Hairy Hand, Porcupine, and Big Beaver in which he said that the men were sitting together when “… Marquis came along and took their picture. I think he gave Porcupine a dollar to take his picture; he wanted to divide that and give a quarter apiece …” The implication here is that Marquis felt he needed to compensate the men for taking their picture. This was a typical response for a tourist, an admission of guilt for invading people's privacy and a compulsion to give something—money—in return for what was taken away. Can we assume that Marquis' photography is tourist photography? I would not want to make that leap without analysis of the remainder of the collection, the substance of which is not included in this volume. We are told toward the end of the book (p. 230) that indeed Marquis took great care in recording the ages of his subjects and dates that the photographs were taken; this is important information that should have been noted on page 9 with the general comments about the photographs.

There are a number of questions that I would have liked to see addressed in this volume: Were these photographs for Marquis' private or personal use, taken as records of his surroundings so that he might remember the activities and people at some future time? Did he give copies of these photographs to the individuals whom he photographed? If so, were they ever displayed in people's homes? If yes, certainly some of these would have survived in the community. The collages of images that he showed at fairs (plates 1 and 17) depict women and girls viewing samples of his photographs at local events. Were these images randomly selected? Did any of the mounted photo collages survive? Did any of the elders looking at this series remember the 1920s display of images? Their comments about these displays would be of real interest. We also wonder whether the Northern Cheyenne use any of these images today in their homes or in their schools? The preface mentions that in the 1960s an educational effort to use these photos in a work intended for reservation schools failed to find a publisher. Were they used in the schools in other ways? This reviewer would also like to know where the titles in boldface came from. Were they Marquis' titles or were they created on the basis of information obtained by the interviewers? Also puzzling is why the designer thought it appropriate to put small, cropped versions of many of the images above the captions. Most of them are poorly reproduced, uninformative, irrelevant and downright annoying (e.g., see plates 24, 42, 62, 63, 69, and 90). Despite such editorial shortcomings, I am glad to have this collection of largely unknown Northern Cheyenne photographs to ponder, enjoy, and have access to in the future.

Note

  1. 1. For a discussion of the meanings we can extract from snapshot collections, see Richard Chalfen's Snapshot Versions of Life (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987).

Joanna Cohan Scherer is an Emeritus Anthropologist in the Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. A visual anthropologist focusing on historical photography, she is the author of many works, including Edward Sheriff Curtis (Phaidon, 2008) and A Danish Photographer of Idaho Indians: Benedicte Wrensted (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), which won the 2008 Collier Prize for Still Photography from the Society for Visual Anthropology. She is currently pursuing a project examining the history of Alice C. Fletcher's ethnographic research among the Omaha and Sioux, two Native North American peoples of the Great Plains region.

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