Photographs of Northwest Native Americans, 1855–1934
The Northwest Photography Archive is well into the process of research and photograph selection for the second volume in the Northwest Photography Series. Enduring Spirit is a visual exploration of the ways that Native peoples adapted and survived in the face of extreme challenges forced upon them from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth. At the time first contact was made in the late 1700s between Native people of the Pacific Northwest and Europeans, the newcomers found a robust indigenous civilization thriving on a resource-rich inter-tribal economy of hunting, fishing, gathering, and trade. While those first encounters were themselves trade-oriented and relatively peaceful, the Native populations were soon decimated by the onslaught of introduced diseases to which they had no natural immunity. Eventually the rising tide of settlers flowing into the Oregon Territory led to Native resistance to white encroachment on tribal lands and resources.
Beginning in 1855 such conflict led to an era of treaty-making across the Northwest, which in turn meant that by the late 1800s most Pacific Northwest tribes had been expelled from their homelands and denied access to their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. Federal policy outlawed Native religious practices, and Congress acted to have children forcibly removed from their families and sent to far-away boarding schools where their language and culture were prohibited. While Native tribes officially remained sovereign nations with “reserved rights” protected by the U.S. Constitution, by the turn of the twentieth century the treaties were routinely violated by both federal and local governments.
Coincidentally, the new art of photography arrived in this far corner of the continent at the time of treaty making. Although their motivations varied, early photographers—from members of the British North American Boundary Survey, to studio portraitists, to field photographers—made powerful candid images of tribal cultures contending with the relentless forces of geographic dislocation and economic deprivation. The photographic legacy they left us makes visible, in images of stunning authenticity, a period of displacement and struggle—and, ultimately, of survival—of the first people of the Pacific Northwest.
In creating Enduring Spirit we are gathering rare photographs from the sea to the inland plateaus—images that with few exceptions have been hidden away in archives and are previously unpublished—and digitally restoring these fading prints and eroding glass negatives for reproduction. Collectively, the photographs in this volume will present an extraordinary visual narrative bridging the old world and the new, providing the reader with an illuminated glimpse into the deepest shadows of America’s forgotten story.