Photographers and the Plains Indian

Note: The word Indian is used instead of Native American as that was the norm at the time.

August 31, 2014 was the last time the Nebraska History Museum opened its doors.  After nineteen months of renovations, the Nebraska History Museum will reopen April 1, 2016. One of the four new exhibits at the museum is the “Photographers and the Plains Indian” exhibit. This will explore how photographs influenced Americans’ perceptions of Plains tribal people. Also, this exhibit will give the audience a look into how both the photographers and their native subjects used early photographs to convey particular meanings to the viewers. “Photographers and the Plains Indians” was created using photographs from the Nebraska State Historical Society’s photo archives. Specifically, the exhibit uses nineteenth-century photographs of American Indians. The photographs are a product that will show the audience a variety of cultural perspectives, individual ambitions, economic factors and personal beliefs.  At first glance, the photographs show the viewers depictions of American Indians, but the photographs also raise questions about those who posed the subjects, captured the images, and sold the photographs.

Studio portrait of Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota chief.


Some may wonder why American Indians agreed to pose for the camera. In certain cases, posing for the photographs was simply a business transaction. Sometimes photographers exchanged cash or gifts for a “few moments in front of the lens.” Other times, they were in the photos to show off some type of status.  American Indians were proud of their role in front of the lens. Some individuals, like Oglala Chief Red Cloud, showed their pride by controlling images and choosing attire to fit their political intentions. Others were known as “entertainers,” such as the Native Americans in the Wild West shows. They realized that photographs were part of public relations and could improve their self-image. Another example is the case of Hunkpapa chief Sitting Bull. He often sold pictures of himself and charged a dollar for an autograph. Posing was an important aspect of the photographs, but so was capturing the moment and showing the audience a different perspective of the American Indians.

Two views of the interior of the Museum in Rapid City, SD where John Anderson was Director.


Many of these photographs were taken by John Anderson.  Born in Sweden on March 25, 1869, he was brought to this country as a small child by his parents. It has been variously reported that the family lived in New York and Pennsylvania prior to coming to Nebraska in 1884. Many years later, Anderson operated the Sioux Indian Museum in Rapid City, South Dakota.  His photographs and famous collection of Indian artifacts were on exhibition. In the spring of 1970, the Society received a letter from Idaho that offered some 350 original Anderson photograph negatives for sale. Prior to this date, it was generally believed that most of the plates had been destroyed in a 1928 fire at the Anderson home. The collection was then purchased by the Society Foundation. Furthermore, this exhibit will give the audience a different perspective on the American-Indians. John Anderson was known for shining a new light on the American-Indians by portraying them as strong and noble. This exhibit is a great way to experience history. Make sure to check out this exhibit and all the others starting April 1st. Brittany Hamor, Editorial Assistant

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History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
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