Telling the Story: Illuminating Native Heritage through Photography

This is the second entry in a series celebrating National Native American Heritage month. We're highlighting photos from the National Museum of the American Indian’s (NMAI) Photo Archives, also available from the museum’s Collections Search website which includes a representative sample of NMAI's object and historic photo collectionsNMAI holds a diverse photograph collection of over 90,000 historic images which range from daguerreotypes to digital images, and is considered one of the most significant collections of American Indian images.

The vast photographic collections of the National Museum of the American Indian reflect the monumental, and ultimately unfathomable, desire of the founder George Gustav Heye to possess as many objects as possible made by and representing the Native Peoples of the Americas. As part of his rather compulsive collecting activities, and with the influence of his associate J. Alden Mason, he emphasized the use of the camera as an essential aid for research. Four of his associates, Frederick M. Johnson, Dr. Frank G. Speck, Mark R. Harrington, and Edward H. Davis, were under contract to Heye to gather examples of material culture. Heye had noted the strengths and weaknesses of his holdings, and he urged his field agents to acquire specimens needed to form a comprehensive collection. These men would collect, as well as show objects “in the field” being created or used in everyday life. Johnson, of the Peabody Foundation at the Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, collected and made photographs in the 1920s and 1930s in a number of Indian communities in Canada.


Outdoor portrait of the man (Dick King, a chief?) wearing a fringed hide or cloth shirt, and beaded In this image by Johnson, the Potawatomi man (possibly a Chief) Dick King is posed outdoors at the Parry Island Reserve, Ontario, Canada, in 1928, wearing a fringed hide or cloth shirt, and holding objects from the NMAI collection, 16/2617, a war club, and 16/2620, dance rattles, seen below.

Dance club with bird effigy (Potawatomi), Created 1910-1920, National Museum of the American Indian,
Rattle (Potawatomi), Created 1850-1900, National Museum of the American Indian, Catalog number:16/26

Frank G. Speck, of Mahican descent, professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted fieldwork throughout his life, and focused his attention on the Algonkian peoples of the Eastern Woodlands. He was deeply interested in culture change and the contemporary lives of the people with whom he worked.


Pamunkey Powhatan woman, Theodora Octavia, 1919, by Dr. Frank G. Speck, Acetate negative, National M In this image, a portrait of the Pamunkey Powhatan woman Theodora Cook, taken in 1919 at the Pamunkey Reservation in Virginia, Speck shows Mrs. Cook wearing a traditional turkey feather neck ornament (NMAI object 10/5721), a headed headband looped over her arm, and wearing clothing of the era, a time of great change for the Native Peoples of the mid-Atlantic.


Pamunkey Collar, Created 1910-1920, Created by Margaret Adams, National Museum of the American India Perhaps because Heye saw himself as a self-made archaeologist, he was drawn to maverick personalities; among the most independent of his associates was Edward H. Davis, a transplanted Easterner, who took up photography and ethnology after he arrived in Mesa Grande, California, in 1885. Heye purchased a collection of Davis’ artifacts in 1915, after which Davis collected objects for Heye for nearly 17 years.


Desert Cahuilla woman Alena Levi (Levy), October 30, 1917, Edward H. Davis, Silver gelatin print, Ca This Davis image shows the Desert Cahuilla woman Alena Levy (on left) adding arrowweed to the bottom of a large grainary basket (NMAI object 7/2271) in 1917, at the Torres Martinez Reservation in California. Storage basket and cover for mesquite beans, Created 1917, Created by Alena Levi, National Museum of Here, the Cahuilla woman Flora Debears holds a rabbit fur cape or blanket (NMAI object 7/0698), photographed in 1917 at the Torres Martinez Reservation in California. Note the traditional sun shelter or ramada, and the pottery olla at her feet, compared to Ms. Debears’ contemporary clothing and boots.

Cahuilla woman, Flora Debears, October 29, 1917, by Edward H. Davis, Silver gelatin print, National
Childs cape (Desert Cahuilla), Created 1910-1917, National Museum of the American Indian, Catalog nu

George Heye hired Mark R. Harrington in 1908, who continued to work for the MAI until until 1928 when he left to join the staff of the Southwest Museum. Mr.  Harrington traveled and collected extensively along the Eastern Seaboard, the South and Midwest, and in Cuba. In Mississippi in 1908, he photographed the Choctaw man Jim Tubby.

Choctaw Man, Jim Tubby, 1908, Mark Raymond Harrington, National Museum of the American Indian, Catal Mr. Tubby is wearing a beaded bandolier sash on his right shoulder (NMAI object 1/8863) and is wearing a cloth cap (NMAI object 1/8852) shown below, while holding game sticks and preparation for a stick ball game.

Bandolier/Shoulder sash (Mississippi Choctaw), Created 1880-1900, National Museum of the American In
Hat/Cap (Mississippi Choctaw), Created circa 1900, National Museum of the American Indian, Catalog n

Looking back over the almost 100 years since these images were taken, it is easy to detect the desire of the photographers to contribute to human knowledge, and the reality of the great changes that had happened—and  were happening—to the subjects of the photographs during the early twentieth century. The NMAI Photo Archives and the Object Collections work hand in hand to document and tell the story of Native Peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

For more information on this collection and others, contact the NMAI photo archives at We also invite you to add your tags and comments to these photos on the Smithsonian's Flickr Commons photostream. To see over 70,000 objects, photographs, finding aids, and other resources pertaining to American Indians, visit the Smithsonian Collections Search Center.

Lou Stancari is the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

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