The work of Oklahoma Kiowa photographer Horace Poolaw (1906-1984), which spanned a period from the 1920s to the 1970s, is a study in contrasts. It presents startling cultural juxtapositions that underscore how uniquely Native people assimilated the social developments of the 20th century into their very different, parallel American lives, in a way forming their own version of modernity.
Anthropologist Nancy Marie Mithlo, who edited For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw (National Museum of the American Indian, Smith-sonian Institution, and Yale University Press, 2014), notes in “Horace Poolaw: Pictures by an Indian,” her accompanying essay, that “what we see in Poolaw’s photographs is not the harsh aftermath of [World War II] but resilient Native people in innocuous settings.”
Throughout the portfolio, in which family and fellow tribal members are prominently represented, many of Poolaw’s subjects are shown in traditional dress (and quite a number of those were shot in the context of an exposition or a tribal-princess parade), but even more wear Anglo-type garments. A 1931 image of Dorothy Poolaw Ware in a traditional buckskin dress, carrying her son Justin Lee Ware in a beautifully beaded cradle board, contrasts with a 1930 photo of Hannah Keahbone, also in buckskin. Keahbone’s hairstyle of plastered-down bangs and spit curls is aptly compared in the accompanying text to the one worn by actress Clara Bow, who is pictured on the same page. In fact, the It-girlish self-confidence emanating from both Keahbone and Bow, photographed within three years of each other, is striking as well. Other images in the book show Kiowa domestic scenes; Fancy Dancers at Indian fairs; the 1932 Fort Sill Indians football team; Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and Kiowa Indians at an Oklahoma governor’s inauguration; and Kiowas in military uniform.
Critics have dismissed some of Poolaw’s depictions as appearing to be posed or otherwise lacking authenticity. In her 2008 essay, “A Native Intelligence,” Mithlo responded to them. “Rather than represent a corruption of values, the Poolaw legacy reflects a visual realism, an active engagement in the urbanization, cosmopolitanism, and leisure activities of America. I argue that Native identity is visually negotiated in these zones of contact as Native Americans become active agents of their own imaginations.”
Mithlo (Chiricahua Apache) is chairwoman of American Indian Studies at the Autry National Center Institute and associate professor of art history and visual arts at Occidental College, both in Los Angeles. For a Love of His People is based on the Poolaw Photography Project, which Poolaw’s daughter Linda initiated in 1989 at Stanford University and which was completed by Mithlo and Tom Jones (Ho-Chunk) at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The project involved preserving and scanning Poolaw’s negatives and preparing an exhibition and catalog. “I first started with the project in 2002 after Linda Poolaw asked me to help the family with the collection,” Mithlo told Pasatiempo. “My first [concern] was just to safeguard it, to make sure the negatives were stored correctly.”
Poolaw produced some 2,000 photographs. Most of his negatives are from Speed Graphic and other large-format cameras. In an interview, Jones said that Poolaw “started with a 5x7 view camera and then moved on to a 4x5 press camera. He also later in life used medium-format twin-lens and 35 mm cameras. These examples are not represented in the show. The earlier negatives were [extremely flammable] nitrate, which is one of the reasons why Nancy and I decided to begin the project of scanning the collection in order to preserve the archive.” Concrete results of that work appear both in the book For a Love of His People and in an exhibition of the same name that opened Aug. 9 at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.
Poolaw was born near Mountain View in Kiowa country in southwestern Oklahoma. He began public school in about 1912 but did not continue beyond the sixth grade. “He was never satisfied with being in one place,” writes Linda Poolaw in the new book. As a photographer, he was mostly self-taught. He apprenticed for a time with two itinerant photographers who stepped off the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific train in Mountain View and left cameras with him when they departed. Mithlo said he probably took a mail-order course in color tinting at one point. In the late 1920s he learned something about staging from his brother’s wife, Lucy Nicolar, a Penobscot who was in show business in New York.
Poolaw continued to photograph Indian people in all their guises. “The government and religious groups had arrived and were busy introducing modern American culture to the Kiowa people by allotting the land and converting Kiowas to Christianity,” Linda Poolaw writes. “Our father shows the adoption of Western culture most clearly in his photos of subjects who posed in both three-piece suits and traditional dress. When I lecture, I state that Dad never began taking photographs with the thought of capturing Kiowas in transition. He just happened to be there with a camera, documenting his community and picturing them as people with pride who dressed and lived as they liked.”
He worked for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol from 1937 to 1938. During World War II, he was an Army aerial photography instructor, stationed at MacDill Field in Florida. The book contains several photos from his Army days, including one showing Poolaw, camera in hand, with side gunner Gus Palmer (also Kiowa) inside a B-17 Flying Fortress. After the war, he went into farming and ranching. He kept a small cattle herd for the rest of his life and continued to take pictures into the 1970s. His daughter writes that Poolaw “never could make a good living being a photographer. It seemed that folks just weren’t interested in an Indian taking their pictures, and neither were they interested in purchasing pictures of Indians.”
“The first manifestation of the Poolaw Photography Project happened in the late 1980s, when Linda was asked to go to Stanford University,” Mithlo said. That resulted in the exhibition War Bonnets, Tin Lizzies, and Patent Leather Pumps: Kiowa Culture in Transition, 1925-1955. It was the second time Poolaw’s pictures had been on public display. The first was a 1979 show at the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko, Oklahoma; he was still alive and had a hand in its curation.
The Stanford show 11 years later was the first time Linda Poolaw saw her father’s photographs printed. She relates in the book that he “had to make every shot count” because of the expense of film. Lack of finances also undoubtedly explains why few of his negatives were ever printed during his life.
“The photos for the War Bonnets show largely were chosen by Stanford undergraduates who knew nothing about Native American studies or about photography,” Mithlo said. “They tended to choose what I term the contract picture. They’re real punchy; they look like Pop Art. One of the most famous that is in the new show has a group of Kiowa women on a car, and they’re in full buckskin and regalia and there’s a sign that says ‘Kiowas.’ Tom Jones was giving a tour for the National Museum of the American Indian docents, and he was talking about how difficult that kind of photo is. The cars are moving, and it’s crowded, and it’s hot. He’s constantly impressed at the quality of Horace’s images.” The car shot was made at the American Indian Exposition in Anadarko. Poolaw was the expo’s official photographer for many years.
The NMAI exhibit runs through Feb. 15, 2015. “I hope it will have a future beyond that, because Horace Poolaw’s legacy, I think, is one that has not received the attention it deserves,” Mithlo said. “Our collective wish is that the book and exhibit will bring him to light and he will enter the American canon in a way he hasn’t in the past.” Poolaw once said, “I do not want to be remembered for my pictures, but through my pictures I want my people to remember themselves.” That is assured, but anyone viewing his photos will realize that the value of Poolaw’s work is more universal. His photographs stand out for their technical clarity, compositional excellence, and faithful depictions of a people in a defining era. As Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday remarked, “His vision of his world, perceived through the lens of a camera, was touched with genius.” Mithlo has echoed that sentiment, writing that Poolaw’s subjects project “a gaze of intelligence” that tells their viewers, “I am observing you before I fully trust you.” According to Mithlo, “This moment negates the idea of Indians living in another space and another time.” ◀