Here's a tip for Native American Facebook users: Follow the page for the film Moses on the Mesa, if you don't already. The page ostensibly exists to promote a film about a man named Solomon Bibo (you can read about that below), but it has become a remarkable repository of classic photographs and portraits of American Indians. And for the most part, they aren't the Edward Curtis pictures we've all already seen (you can read about that below too; the twenty-five photos follow). Paul Ratner, a filmmaker who's become a historian in the process, says he has posted "a few thousand" pictures at this point. He took a few moments to tell ICMN about his image collection and Moses on the Mesa. (Note: the caption information on these images is what Ratner has posted to Facebook, and comes from the original sources.)
Your film is based on a pretty amazing true story, that of Solomon Bibo—can you give us the broad strokes of what happened and what attracted you to the story?
Solomon Bibo was a German Jewish immigrant who came to New Mexico as a teenager in 1869, following in the footsteps of his older brothers. Solomon became a well-known merchant, trading with different Native American tribes in the area. Eventually, he married Juana Valle, an Acoma woman, and in 1885 was chosen as the governor of the Pueblo of Acoma. He is the only known Jewish governor of a Native American tribe.
I used to visit Acoma Pueblo (one of the most beautiful places on Earth as far as I am concerned) while I lived in New Mexico a few years ago and once heard this story. I am myself an immigrant to this country and thought this was just an incredible tale of how seemingly very unlikely people can meet and find a common language for quite a long time. I wanted to explore the history, the love story and all the good and the bad that happened. I also thought it a great opportunity to tell a tale that would be interesting to very different kind of people all over the world. We have thousands of people on our page not just from the US, but from France, Germany, Mexico, Czech Republic, Argentina, Israel, Netherlands and many others.
We have so far made the award-winning short film Moses on the Mesa and are now in the process of making a feature film version of this story.
This encounter between European-Jewish and Native American cultures isn't something we hear about too often—in terms of values, traditions, and philosophies, what do you see as common ground for Solomon and the Acoma?
I think one common ground was simply personal relationships. Solomon learned Keres, the Acoma language, and knew a lot about Acoma culture after trading with them for years. He respected Acomas, had good friends among them, including the former governor, whose granddaughter Juana he fell in love with and married. As such, he essentially became part of the tribe. Solomon and his wife Juana were a great match, married for almost 50 years, with six children. From what we know of Juana Valle, she was a very intelligent lady, who had a keen business sense and looked out for her family’s best interests.
It’s also hard not to see this as a meeting of very ancient cultures and peoples. Interestingly enough, during Solomon’s times there were even well-spread theories that Native Americans were actually the Biblical Lost Tribe of Israel. Jews fled Germany in late 1800s because they had many government-mandated restrictions on their life, including where and how they could live, work, and marry. I think Solomon invariably saw the connection in that oppression to how the Native Americans were treated in the US. He made enemies among a number of US government officials while helping Acomas fight unfair land grant decisions. In turn, Acomas made Solomon governor several different years.
From your Facebook page, it looks like some diligent research turned into a project all its own—why did you take such an interest in all this old photography?
I have a life-long fascination with indigenous cultures, after encountering many native people in Siberia where I lived in the early years of my life. When I first started our Facebook page, I initially focused my research on the history of the Southwest as it pertained to the story of Solomon Bibo. But eventually my research expanded to old photographs of indigenous people all across North America. I found that by posting the photographs, I could connect to thousands of people who want to know more about Native American history. I spend quite a bit of time doing this but feel like it’s something that is now more of passion and is just important to do. I learned a lot about the Native American community, its history and its concerns through the comments that people leave as they experience and debate the photo glimpses into the past.
When we talk about photographs of Natives from the late 19th-early 20th century, the work of Edward S. Curtis tends to dominate the discussion—for better or worse. Yet you pulled from many different sources. Do you have an opinion on Curtis' work vs. that of other photographers?
Edward S. Curtis was passionate about documenting what he felt was a vanishing race. In a way he sacrificed his whole life (including his savings and family) for this pursuit. We owe him a debt in preserving many aspects of Native American life for future generations. On the other hand, like many photographers of the era, he often staged his pictures. As such, the truth of what you see in an old photo is often up to debate. On my page, I try to highlight the work of other talented photographers as well, hoping that from among the different portrayals, insights will emerge. I encourage everyone to check out the work of Ben Wittick, L.A. Huffman, Roland W. Reed, Gertrude Käsebier, Carl Moon, H.S. Poley, Jesse H. Bratley, William Henry Jackson, Frederick Monsen and others.
What are some of your favorite pictures?
It would be hard for me to pick my favorite—the walls of my office are lined with dozens and dozens of photos I printed out. I really appreciate the sensitive portraits by the photographer Gertrude Käsebier (like her portraits of the Lakota Plenty Wounds and Flying Hawk from 1900), portraits of children and women (who often don’t get so much attention as history is generally written about the men), and the photographs of the old Zuni Pueblo (which doesn’t exist that way any more) by Ben Wittick and Timothy O’Sullivan.
Little Martin, a Cheyenne woman
This story was originally published on April 24, 2014.