New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 21 June 6 to 12, 2012

Isleta at the Museum of the American Indian

Time Exposures: Picturing a History of Isleta Pueblo in the 19th Century
R. Wayne Parsons
“Women selling pots at train.”

Beginning with the arrival of Columbus in 1492, natives of the Americas drew a very big short straw in their encounters with the white man. The American version of “ethnic cleansing,” formalized in the 1830 Indian Removal Act, more or less forcibly resettled American Indians from the US Southeast to Western areas such as Oklahoma.

However, some Native Americans were already West of the Mississippi, among them the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest. A little known fact today is that these communities were already hundreds of years old when the Spaniards first stumbled upon them in the sixteenth century in their search for gold. Indeed, several of the 19 extant Pueblo villages are over 1000 years old, and are, by far, the longest continuously occupied communities in North America.

Anyone interested in connecting with this aspect of our history, especially from the perspective of those most directly affected, should visit “Time Exposures: Picturing a History of Isleta Pueblo in the 19th Century” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. This exhibition was not created by professional curators, but “organized by the people of the Pueblo of Isleta. A committee of Isleta Pueblo traditional leaders oversaw the development, writing, and design of the exhibition.”

Featured are recent prints of late nineteenth–and early twentieth-century photographs of Pueblo life taken by a plethora of white photographers; two of the best known names are Edward Curtis and A. C. Vroman, though the standout is anthropologist and photographer Charles Lummis, who lived in the pueblo for several years, learned to speak Tiwa, and visited it repeatedly until the end of his life in the 1920’s. The events documented here correspond roughly to the arrival in 1881 of the Atchinson Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, which ran right through the center of the pueblo, to the end of the century.

If you visit this exhibition expecting to find happy natives expressing their good fortune in winding up as part of the American empire you have gone to the wrong place. The photos and accompanying text express continual dissatisfaction with the way these Native Americans were treated (is “exploited” too strong a word?) by their white masters.

 by unidentified photographer. Source:
“Indian School Students”

A repeated theme of the exhibit is how the white man, photographers in particular, chose to present life in the pueblo in accordance with their preconceptions about Indians and Indian life. Moreover, Native Americans rarely profited financially from use of their images, as these photographers did. A common objective was to interpret American Indian life in terms of such stereotypes as the “Wild West,” the “vanishing race,” “primitive but picturesque”, etc. Thus photographers took liberties in wandering around the Pueblo, stopping inhabitants and posing them as they thought appropriate. One example is the ubiquitous image of an Indian woman balancing a pot on her head, even though this was hardly typical of daily life (many such photographs are on display). One of the more interesting photos shows Indian women (complete with pots) standing next to a stopped train, waiting to sell their pottery to white tourists who disembark briefly to savor local culture and possibly buy a souvenir before continuing their journey. Another image shows a woman doing a dirty chore after being dressed by the photographer in her finest ceremonial outfit, about as authentic as if you did your spring cleaning in formal evening wear. Another striking photo depicts seven young men, students at the “Indian School” they attended. These institutions, where students were not allowed to speak their native language, were created by the American government as a way to cleanse these native populations of their traditional culture and turn them into cultural automatons acceptable to their white rulers. These handsome young men, impeccably groomed in their school uniforms, give every indication of having bought into the program.

Time Exposures does not aspire to be a fine art photography show. Instead it records what happens when cultures collide, especially as seen from the perspective of the less numerous and weaker group. Fortunately, one might argue (as I do), that these misguided efforts to rid the US of its indigenous cultures have to some extent failed. The present day inhabitants of Isleta, like many Native Americans, strive to maintain their traditions and are very conscious of their anomalous place in our society. In their own words: “We still live apart – a part of mainstream America and yet, not a part.”

Time Exposures: Picturing a History of Isleta Pueblo in the 19th Century
Curator: Isleta Pueblo Traditional Leaders

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