Several years ago, I did a presentation with the title for the Helmerich Center for American Research at the Gilcrease Museum. The first part of what follows is the bulk of that presentation. The presentation is about what we can learn from reading an image.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of the verb “Read” is “To consider, interpret, discern.” So we can look at a photograph and actually interpret what we are seeing. Sometimes a little effort is required, but it is usually possible to answer these questions:
• Who is the photographer, and who are we looking at?
• What are we actually looking at?
• Why did the photographer take and keep this particular image? It may be possible to discern or infer the photographer’s intention.
• Where was the image taken?
• When was the image taken?
• How was the image made? Can the physical format tell you anything?
Before I start looking at this, I need to mention that I am not an expert in Native American dances, nor do I purport to be one. If anyone has any suggestions on how to better this interpretation, please feel free to comment.
This is the photograph we are going to focus on. Its title is “Indian Ghost Dance, Looking for the Messiah.” We know that because obviously it’s written on the image.
Briefly, in case there are any reading this who are not familiar with the ghost dance, it was a Native American religious movement stemming from the vision of the Prophet Wovoka in 1889. He was a Northern Piute, and his vision was of the resurrection of the dead and the removal of the whites and their works from the land. In order for this to work, his followers needed to live in an older, more traditional way, and perform a particular dance, the ghost dance. Eventually this belief filtered throughout the tribes of the plains and west. Not all tribes practiced the ghost dance, but many incorporated some version of it. Although the ghost dance movement waned after the massacre at Wounded Knee, I am informed that the ghost dance is still occasionally performed.
The photograph in question is an albumen print Cabinet Card, made by Thomas F. Croft of Arkansas City, Kansas. Cabinet Cards were a way of mounting the fragile photographic papers on cardboard popular between 1870 and the 1910s. The photograph is an image of a number of Native Americans sitting around in what appears to be a circle, while two men stand in the center, possibly in prayer. There are two flags blowing in the wind.
This card is in the Ellis Clark Soper collection at the Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa. It was acquired in 1930 as part of a purchase of a much larger collection.
The information at the bottom of the card can lead to information about the photographer.
A simple search for late 19th century photographers named Croft in Arkansas City, Kansas reveals that…
Thomas F. Croft moved to Arkansas City from Illinois in 1885. In 1894 he likely took the famous photograph of the Land Run Opening the Cherokee Strip for settlement while working for a photographer named Prettyman. In 1896 he took the first known image of a tornado in action during a visit to Oklahoma City. He regularly traveled to Indian Territory to shoot images of Native Americans, such as the one we are examining. Later on in his career he moved to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Territory.
All that really tells us is that this is post 1885, although most of his images from Indian and Oklahoma territories do appear to be from the 1890s.
Let’s look at some details. You will notice these three lines along the top of the image?
Explained photograph details
This is an indication that this was not made from the original negative. This is a photograph of a photograph, and in fact of a different cabinet card. This may be the reason for most of the blur.
The scratch is not on the actual emulsion of our cabinet card, so this means that this is a crack in the negative, or there’s another layer of reproduction we are missing.
Looking at the bottom we can see that the white band is a label that’s been placed across the bottom part of the image.
The number was written on the negative (the white lettering is distinctive), and the label obscures some other text. Croft’s other works do sometimes show this sort of writing on the negative.
The handwriting on the label is block print, and while similar to what I’ve seen elsewhere of Croft’s hand, but is not distinctive.
So what does this tell us so far?
We now know that this is not a copy from the original negative, and Croft may or may not be the actual original photographer. Also we know that Croft has made a conscious decision to label this photo with this title after the original print was made.
So now we need to look at the Ghost dance itself. These images are from an Arapaho ghost dance (interestingly both of these shots were taken from the same location, probably during the same dance. They were taken in 1890 by James Mooney, who was studying the dance.
You may notice that in the Croft image the actual ritual location is clearly defined, while in the Mooney the dancing area doesn’t appear to be so defined.
In fact, the area of the dance has been intentionally carved out, leaving a small berm for people to sit on.
Interpretation of Dance Ground Image
Based on an estimate of the heights of the individuals, I’m going say this appears to be a rough circle at least 50’ in diameter. Further I will suggest that the entrance to the circle is on the east, so the photograph was taken in the morning. It has been suggested to me that the drum is in the cluster of men between the camera and the cedar tree.
And here we have the locations of the photographer, the flags, the standing men, and the tree.
We can see a fair number of the garments the people are wearing. Not very similar.
Now, just to make it really clear, we also have this…
Faw Faw dance details
Faw Faw dance details
Faw Faw dance details
Faw Faw dance details
Faw Faw dance details
A bison skull under a cedar tree. This is not a part of the ghost dance, although there is other relevance.
Faw Faw dance details
From the clues in the photograph, it can be concluded that this is not a Ghost Dance. This is almost certainly a depiction of an early Waw-no-she’s dance, also known as a Faw Faw dance, or Old Man Fawfaw’s dance
William Faw Faw, also known as Waw-no-she, an Oto, also had a dream of a ritual and way of life that would help a return to the old ways. (I believe this image is also by Thomas Croft).
Family of Henry Red Eagle, Osage
Chief White Horse, Oto-Missouri
The known dates for his religious movement seem to be around 1891-1895, although that is not entirely clear. This is a little later than the peak of the ghost dance. It was practiced among the Oto-Missouia and some Osages.
The family on your left is that of Henry Red Eagle, Osage, and on your right is Chief White Horse, Oto-Missouria. Note the sorts of work on their garments. And compare them with
It’s hard to make out the specific motifs because of the quality of the reproduction, copying a copy; but it is suggestive.
According to Dr. Garrick Bailey, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma, the bison skull and the cedar tree are fairly distinctive for the Faw faw.
The cedar tree, uprooted and replanted in a lodge or ritually prepared space, along with a buffalo skull.
Further, according to Dr. Bailey, this dance was known to have been performed at least once near Fairfax, Oklahoma; and “The Old Pratt Place” near Hominy, Oklahoma is supposed to have a similar dug out area.
Is there anything else we can glean from the photograph?
Obviously there are people in the crowd who are aware he is there, and some don’t appear happy about it. Totally understandable, since this ceremony is not only ceremonial, but it’s also illegal at the time.
The two American flags are interesting. The smaller one has the correct number of stripes, but only 13 stars. The other appears to be a 38 star concentric circle flag, in use between 1877 and 1890.
The other clothing styles, specifically the turbans, are consistent with Osage and Oto-Missouria style of the period.
It is likely that the photographer, even if we assume he knew that this was not a ghost dance, was less interested in educating the public about the differences in cultural events than highlighting the common themes and selling prints based on the interest in the more famous Ghost Dance.
• 1000.001.1.5.20. Pawnee Bill Collection. Department of Special Collections and University Archives, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa.
• 1931.004.3.S101. Ellis Clark Soper Collection. Department of Special Collections and University Archives, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa.
• Arapaho Ghost Dance. http://www.ghostdance.com/cgi-bin/display/image.cgi?iid=24&itid=4. Accessed: 9-1-2015.
• Arapaho Ghost Dance. http://www.ghostdance.com/cgi-bin/display/image.cgi?iid=32&itid=4. Accessed: 9-1-2015.
• Arapaho Ghost dance shirt. http://www.wpclipart.com/American_History/Native_Americans/Arapahoe/Arapahoe_Ghost_dance_shirt.png. Accessed: 9-1-2015.
• Bailey, Garrick, Personal Interviews.
• Ghost Dance Shirts. http://chickamaugacherokee.org/ghostdance/ Accessed: 9-1-2015.
• La Flesche, Francis. The Osage and the invisible world : from the works of Francis La Flesche. Norman University of Oklahoma Press 1995.
• Neg. no. 13 Lenny Sawyer Collection. Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Library.
• Neg. no. 3358. Oklahoma History Society.
• Uncataloged. Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Library.
• Wooley David, and Waters, William T. ‘Waw-no-she’s dance.’ American Indian Art Magazine. v. 14, no.1 (Winter 1988), pp.36-45.
So, that was the image in the presentation. This morning, the Department of Special Collections acquired a new copy of the image (2016.007.7).
Faw Faw dance photos
You will notice that this image was made considerably after the other, since it was made in Oklahoma City, O.T. There are a few details different. The earlier image is straighter (you can see this in the angle of the original cabinet card. There is apparently 2.5 mm of data shift from the older image and the new one (this means that the camera was not capturing precisely the same image from the original – this effect is easily seen in other photographic reproductions, such as the Tulsa Race Riot post cards). Interestingly the “2” has been removed from the image between the captures.
So what does it all mean? Aside from the importance of correcting a mis-identification, not much, other than allowing us to see