Looking Outside the Frame: Native American Photographs and Stereotypes

The focus of historical paintings and portraits often tends to be the subjects in the picture rather than the artists who created the works, the intent behind the images and — perhaps most importantly — the impact of the images.

On Feb. 6, Frank H. Goodyear, the associate curator of photographs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, challenged an audience at the Bozeman Public Library to start working to change that focus.

Goodyear, who specializes in the history of photography and of the American West, spoke specifically about the importance of looking more critically at historical portrayals of American Indians — almost all of which were created by non-native artists and photographers. Goodyear believes “people haven’t looked closely enough at the people creating those images, or at the contexts.” When one begins to do so, he or she realizes there are patterns and stereotypes which might not reflect the reality or cultural context.

“There was an idealized Native American type,” Goodyear emphasized. “You see a lot of types, but you don’t see individuals.”

When one begins to look at individuals rather than type-casted characters in historical representations, it becomes necessary to start asking critical questions: Who was this person, and how did he — or more rarely, she — fit in to the historical climate in which he or she is pictured? Why did the photographer photograph the person in this way? How was this image received at the time, and how is it interpreted by viewers now?

Goodyear showed an array of historical depictions of Native Americans, the majority of which depicted brawny, middle-aged, warrior-type males. “There is hardly ever any depiction of women, children or the elderly,” said Goodyear.

Just as any critical thinker will question a claim, so should everyone strive to investigate the contents and meaning of any historical photo. Portraits, especially historical depictions of American Indians, are rarely in natural settings and were frequently created by artists who have never seen Native Americans.

When one acknowledges that non-natives produced most of the historical paintings and photographs of Native Americans, serious ethical concerns arise regarding the use of these portraits in an educational context. But if people look deeper into these images and consider their implications, “it can help overturn stereotypical representations that have long existed.”

Goodyear spoke as part of the Montana Council for History and Civics Education’s (MCHCE) mission to provide professional development for state history teachers in order to strengthen the content of K-12 history and civics education in Montana schools.

Goodyear and the MCHCE are right on track; in order to strengthen history and civics education, students (and everyone) must learn to critically consider every piece of historical information they encounter, be it a picture or a war narrative. Goodyear calls it “doing history” — not just seeing or reading it.