The following contribution is from Laura E. Smith, author of Horace Poolaw, Photographer of American Indian Modernity (Nebraska, 2016). Smith unravels the compelling life story of Kiowa photographer Horace Poolaw (1906–84), one of the first professional Native American photographers. Born on the Kiowa reservation in Anadarko, Oklahoma, Poolaw bought his first camera at the age of fifteen and began taking photos of family, friends, and noted leaders in the Kiowa community, also capturing successive years of powwows and pageants at various fairs, expositions, and other events. Though Poolaw earned some income as a professional photographer, he farmed, raised livestock, and took other jobs to help fund his passion for documenting his community.
My interest in Horace Poolaw’s work began as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico. I was introduced to his work in a seminar on modern Native American art taught by Dr. Joyce Szabo. It was in this class that I became aware of the great amount of dissension among scholars and artists related to defining exactly what was modern about Native American art and Native identity. Many non-Indians (including a lot of my college students) continue to think that what is traditional or “authentic” indigenous culture lies in the past. If American Indians engage their present or culturally diverse worlds, they are assimilated. In other words, they are no longer really Indians. This was the kind of education I received when I made my first venture into Indian country. In 1985, I was an English education major and decided to do my student teaching on the Navajo Reservation as part of Indiana University’s Student Teaching Options program. In preparation for this venture, I read lots of articles on Navajo culture. None of the articles prepared me for a Navajo boy named “Elvis” or group of Navajo boys who did break dancing to Michael Jackson songs!
Fast-forward to my years as an art history graduate student beginning in 1999 and I found the same static beliefs about Indians within non-Indian cultural institutions. Indians are never allowed to change, and the measure for authentic or “traditional” Indian art and culture lies in the time before European, African, or Asian contact. What’s consistently at stake for Indians in this post-contact period is survival. And many have to defend their lives regularly. I hear this in Indian art exhibition themes like “We are still here” or “We are a modern people.” Cosmopolitanism, urbanization, and industrialization are among those forces that most non-Indians believe to be the annihilators of Indians. By contrast, my story on Poolaw demonstrates that in large part indigenous survival, as with any culture, depended upon (and continues to depend upon) transformation.
Horace Poolaw, Aerial Photographer, and Gus Palmer, Gunner, c. 1944, is one of the more easily
translatable images as modern in Western terms due to the context of the airplane, the U.S. Army apparel, and the inclusion of mechanical guns and picture-making devices. Yet by translating this image as modern using Western standards, the feather war bonnet then is only understood in oppositional terms: a symbol of the past and of pre-contact Indians. This image of Poolaw and fellow Kiowa soldier Gus Palmer was, according to Palmer, one that was meant to commemorate a short visit Palmer made to the airbase where Poolaw was stationed that year. In 1943, Poolaw enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces and received training in aerial photography. He then served as an aerial photography instructor at MacDill Field in Tampa, Florida. Well over 25,000 Native Americans served in WWII. Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier reported in 1941 that the percentage of Native American participation in relation to their total population was higher than any other American ethnic group.
In the image, Poolaw and Palmer are posed and seemingly poised for shooting, Poolaw with a camera and Palmer with a machine gun. Both are focused on some point or “target” outside of the picture. They are crouched behind their instruments, caught by the camera in their tense and ready anticipation for the moment of attack. There is a noticeable degree of play going on with the subjects’ self-presentation. The composed, yet suspended animation makes it look like a film still. The position of the figures, their instruments, and their clothing are all too carefully placed. War bonnets are not part of the US army uniform, so this makes it readily apparent that the men are dressed up for a photo shoot. Poolaw’s play with this portrait exposes its staging. He frequently parodied the popularly reproduced Plains Indian chief stereotype of Hollywood Westerns. By presenting such openly fabricated Indian soldier identities, this image undermines the Plains Indian cliché. It also affirms the creative power of Indians to shape and re-shape their self-images as necessitated by their ever-modernizing worlds. This is one way that I find Poolaw’s pictures to be expressions of Indian modernity.