Published on December 3, 2010 by John
Horace Poolaw (1906-1984) was a Kiowa photographer from Mountain View, Oklahoma.
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Born in Oklahoma in 1906, Horace Poolaw apprenticed himself to a local photographer at age 17, later becoming the most prolific Indian photographer of his generation. During the five decades in which he photographed the Plains Indians, tribal cultures underwent profound changes, including the arrival of white settlers to the Plains, the division of tribal lands into farm allotments and the disappearance of some traditional religious practices.
Horace Poolaw was a photographer in a time of huge transition for Native American People. He was able to document this huge transition from the inside. His photographs differ significantly from photographs taken at the same places and same times from non-Natives. Poolaw was able to show Natives in day to day life. He photographed Kiowa women in the latest fashion as well as Kiowas in cars with headdresses. Horace was able to capture the transition of children being taken into boarding school. They had their worn Native clothing when they arrived and transition was drastic – they transformed into boarding school children in their new hard shoes and military uniforms, as well as the cutting of the hair that represented so many different spiritual things in Native culture. Poolaw was capturing the transition from the inside out as opposed to the official documentation by the government. Horace Poolaw captured the truth in the transition, which makes his photography so precious. He visually proved how adaptable Native people really are.
The body of work that Horace Poolaw spent his life amassing has proved invaluable for Kiowa people and historians. It was a time when he was doing photography the 1920s through the 1950s in Oklahoma that was a very racist time for Native American people. He captured the truth about how we were just people living and working, relishing our new found freedom after the incarcerations as prisoners of war. The strangest thing is that so many people moved to Oklahoma that hated Indians knowing it was where they put so many different tribes after the Trail of Tears. I grew up in Oklahoma in a small town next to Pawnee, Oklahoma the home of Pawnee Bill and the origin of the Wild West Show. Poolaw took pictures that are very different than the ones displayed at the Pawnee Bill Museum, as well as publications of that time period. He photographed people being people and Natives with dignity. Many other photographers were photographing propaganda.
Poolaw’s photographic legacy – which his daughter, Linda arranged to have printed, catalogued and exhibited after his death in 1984-record this intersection of cultures and transformation of family life, work and leisure in images of engaging thoughtfulness and sensitivity. The exhibit, titled “War Bonnets, Tin Lizzies and Patent Leather Pumps: Kiowa Culture in Transition 1925-1955,” traveled around the country in the early 1990s and was the subject of a major documentary video.
Together, Linda Poolaw and Charles Junkerman developed the year-long seminar as a special project. Students helped print all the negatives and research the individuals represented. They also assisted in the selection of a group of photographs for an exhibition at Stanford. Linda Poolaw and her students traveled to Anadarko, Oklahoma on three separate occasions to enlist the help of Kiowa elders who sifted through the photographs identifying people and events. The process of remembering brought the Kiowa generations together, as children were introduced to the photographs of deceased relatives, and younger people were confronted with images of their parents or grandparents.
After a lifetime of work Horace Poolaw wanted only that his people would be remembered for who they were. He documented the time in transition to who the Kiowa were becoming. Pictures show the truth and Poolaw did a great service to humanity to capture the transition of a culture in transition, from a Native perspective.
Context: Photographic documentation of Native Americans
Other before-and-after matches are less dramatic but equally compelling, as in the case of two pictures of Apache children at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1886. In the first, taken when they arrived, they are longhaired, barefoot and dressed in worn native clothes. In the second, shot a month later, they are trimmed, shod and wear school uniforms. The pictures were meant to demonstrate the transforming powers of civilization. They are also studies in cultural obliteration.
The assimilationist impulse took on missionary zeal in the careers of Frank C. Churchill (1850-1912), a United States Indian Agency employee, and his wife, Clara, both of whom photographed life on reservations. Mrs. Churchill gave slide lectures on Indians – a simulated version of one is in the show – in which she emphasized the progress they were making, how much they were just like us. But in a photo of Mrs. Churchill herself observing impoverished Apache women waiting in line for rations, the real us-them dynamic snaps into place.
Such jarring shifts in perspective recur everywhere in the show, which has been organized by Richard W. Hill Sr., a photographer and teacher at the State University of New York in Buffalo, and Natasha Bonilla-Martinez, director of education at the California Center for the Arts in Escondito. Just beyond the images of the aftermath of Wounded Knee are pictures, taken in the same year, of a pitched battle in progress between Indian warriors and white soldiers. This life-and-death skirmish, however, was being performed by actors in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, which toured the United States and Europe to popular acclaim.
Hollywood gave final form to the feathers-and-tomahawk version of the Indian – often enacted by Indians themselves – that is still current. At the same time, corrective views emerged. Some came from anthropologists like Frank G. Speck (1881-1950), a renowned scientist and a native rights advocate. Others came from American Indian photographers.
Spirit Capture Exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian
Outstanding among them is Horace Poolaw (1906-1984) from Oklahoma, who put together a substantial body of work beginning in the 1920′s. His pictures in the exhibition, from shots of Indian fairs to casual portraits of family and friends, effortlessly mix the archetypal and the personal, as does a reminiscence written by Linda Poolaw, his daughter, in the fascinating exhibition catalog.
The exhibit Spirit Capture: Native Americans and the Photographic Image, that features Poolaw’s work, showed at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, George Heye Center, in New York in 2002.
Spirit Capture is giving us another kind of experience, an expository history-book experience, one that might not have been as effective, or able to put across such difficult, layered information, in another form:167 Poolaw once said that he didn’t want to be remembered for his photographs; he wanted his people to be remembered through them. Those are the priorities that seem to be operative in this exhibition, and, for the most part, at the National Museum of the American Indian itself.