Behind the Portrait: Frances Densmore and Mountain Chief

Mountain Chief, Chief of Montana Blackfeet, in Native Dress With Bow, Arrows, and Lance, Listening t

I received an interesting comment on a story I posted a few weeks ago about a postcard of Frances Densmore, an ethnologist who worked to preserve American Indian music, and Mountain Chief of the Blackfoot tribe. Dr. Joshua Bell, Curator of Globalization (what a title!) at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Anthropology Department, filled me in on some of the circumstances around this portrait.

First, the photo was taken by Harris & Ewing, Inc., a photography studio in Washington, D.C. which captured notable people, events, and architecture during 1905-1945. Second, Mountain Chief was a frequent visitor to Washington D.C. as a representative of and negotiator for the Blackfoot people. Finally the photo, which was likely staged, is of Mountain Chief interpreting a song in Plains Indian sign language rather than him listening to his own voice which is what the postcard caption indicated. In light of these circumstances, Dr. Bell summarizes the larger context around the portrait:

“What we have then is an image that is clearly staged and thus a performance for the photographers. It is therefore not a photograph of ‘field recording’ but a much more dynamic image of a range of activities and involvement that embodied what members of the Bureau of American Ethnology did. As such it indexes, notions about what anthropologists did and do, the mutual collaboration that informs (however ideally this practice), Densmore’s commitment to recording and transcribing a range of Blackfeet linguistic (and thus cultural) material, Mountain Chief’s engagement to help preserve and document aspects of his culture, and is a intriguing moment in his own journey through the settler-colonial experience in North America, etc.”

The photograph tells a much richer story with these details. To see more photos by Harris & Ewing, visit the Smithsonian Cross Collection Search Center and the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Collection.

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