Snapshots of Transition: Native American Reservation Life in the Early 1900s


James O. Arthur; White sands, July 1917, by Unknown photographer (Non-Indian), Nitrate negative, Smi This is the first entry in a series celebrating National Native American Heritage Month. In this series we will be highlighting photos from the National Museum of the American Indian's (NMAI) Photo Archives that were recently contributed to NMAI’s Collections Search and the Smithsonian Flickr Commons photostream. NMAI holds a diverse photograph collection of over 90,000 ethnohistoric images, which range from daguerreotypes to digital images, and is considered one of the most significant collections of American Indian images. One of our more recent acquisitions highlights reservation life in the early 1900s. In 2006, NMAI received a donation of 700 nitrate negatives taken by the Reverend James O. Arthur (1887-1971). An amateur photographer and a missionary for the Reformed Church of America, Arthur and his family lived and worked on the Winnebago Reservation in 1913 and the Mescalero Apache Reservation from 1914-1919. Using his 3A Folding Kodak Pocket camera, Arthur captured the people and daily life activities on these reservations. These images are prime examples of amateur photography, which became very popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s due to the small hand-held cameras and roll film that could be sent in to commercial labs for development. Thus, encouraging people to pick up a camera and document their surroundings as Reverend Arthur did.


Missionary Reverend James Arthur on horseback with his children; Margaret Jean (left), John Paul (mi Reverend Arthur documented his official duties on the reservations, such as building a church and parsonage, as well as unofficial activities like hunting and vacations. Arthur also documented his own growing family. Reverend Arthur and his wife Katherine Arthur had five children—Margaret Jean, James Jr., John Paul, Robert Lee, and Kathryn—all of which can be seen coming of age on the reservations in this photo collection.


Outdoor portrait of members of the Sewing Society working on a quilt; missionary Katherine Arthur an Chiricahua Apache men working with an oat separator in a field in the Whitetail portion of the Mesca The bulk of the photograph collection focuses on life on the Whitetail portion of the Mescalero Apache Reservation. This is where Goyathlay’s (Geronimo) band of Chiricahua Apaches relocated from Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1913 after being held prisoners by the United States Military since 1886. Arthur's photographs capture this transitional period for the Chiricahuas as they adjusted to life on the reservation and to the mission of the church. He photographed the Chiricahuas’ domestic activities such as farming and raising livestock, as well leisure activities like basketball games, picnics, and sewing circles. He also photographed many Chiricahua Apache family outdoor portraits.



Apache men running a 100 yard race at a picnic, June 21, 1917, by Reverend James O. Arthur, Nitrate This collection can be considered first and foremost very personal as Arthur utilized a non-commercial approach to his photography. Unlike images that were distributed commercially and can be found in many archives and repositories with Native American photograph collections, Reverend Arthur's photographs were for his personal use and were not reproduced outside the family. Consequently, the photos are a rare glimpse into the lives of those living on the Mescalero Apache Reservation at the time.

Additionally, Arthur was an amateur archivist of sorts; he meticulously organized his photographs and recorded dates, captions, and names of individuals appearing in the photos. All too often photographs arrive at archive repositories without any data and therefore context can be lost. Arthur’s photo documentation has proved invaluable. A couple of months ago we had a visitor from New Mexico who came to the NMAI Archives to look at the Chiricahua Apache images. When he viewed this collection of photographs along with our catalog information, he found images of his great grandfather that he had never seen before.


Oswald Smith and family posing outside a large tent on the Mescalero Apache reservation; one man, tw


Attempting to interpret these photographs, of course, you can't ignore the social and political contexts in which these images were created. Arthur was after all a missionary working to Christianize Indians. His photographs, however, offer a glimpse of different aspects of this often ambiguous relationship. Arthur's photographs do not play into the stereotypes of American Indians that you often see in images from this time period. For example, many photographs of American Indians reflect the ideologies of the photographer (or the sponsoring agency that commissioned the photographs) and most commonly depict American Indians in either the romanticized (e.g. Edward Curtis' photos) or the "savage Indian" fashion. Arthur's photos, however, are the type of snapshots that you might find in a family album from this time period. Both Natives and non-Natives are depicted in the same way, with the majority of the images being either candid action shots or posed outdoor portraits.

Outside portrait of Viola Chihuahua (Chiricahua Apache) posing with baby Agnes in her arms, August 2 It could be argued that Arthur intentionally photographed American Indians on the reservation in non-traditional clothing and participating in such activities as basketball games, to show that he successfully "civilized and educated the Indians."  However, the fact that Arthur took these photos for personal use and that they were kept in the family, inherited by his granddaughter and then later donated to NMAI by her and her son, suggests that Arthur's photographs did not overtly serve such a political purpose but that he created them to record his own life and memories of the people and activities he encountered on the reservation.

See a portion of the Reverend James O. Arthur Collection on NMAI's Collections Search and through the Smithsonian Collections Search Center.  For more information on this collection or others contact us at

Emily Moazami is the Photo Technician of Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.