A new book and exhibit look behind the photographs to tell the Ojibwe's story


ST. PAUL, Minn. - The Ojibwe people of Minnesota were among the earliest subjects during the introduction of photography in the mid-19th century. Images of leaders wearing headdresses and holding pipes, birch bark canoes, wild ricing and maple sugaring became postcards, stereographs and carte de visites sold to white consumers.

Today, these photographs are clues to impressive stories of survival and endurance by Indian people and in some cases preserve significant cultural information. They also record stereotypes, as photographers used costumes and props to shape the popular image of American Indians.

Until Aug. 12, the Minnesota Historical Society presents, ''Camera Ojibwe: Photos of Ojibwe Life,'' an exhibit of photographs and artifacts on display at the History Center. The exhibit opened as the Minnesota Historical Society Press published, ''We Are at Home: Pictures of the Ojibwe People,'' a new book by historian Bruce White.

The exhibit and book feature many of the same photographs of everyday Ojibwe life and studio portraits taken during the first 100 years of photographic history. The exhibit follows the structure of the book, with each section displaying selected photographs in addition to items from the society's artifact collections.

Marcia Anderson, a curator of the exhibit said, ''The juxtaposition of the photographs and artifacts brings to light both the ways these images were created and the stories behind the photos themselves.''

In ''We Are at Home: Pictures of the Ojibwe People,'' published May 22, White examines hundreds of historical images - from daguerreotypes to studio portraits to snapshots - taken of Ojibwe people from the 1850s through the 1950s.

This rich record of American Indian tradition and culture came about through a confluence of events: Permanent white settlement of Minnesota coincided with the development of photographic processes that allowed field and studio photographers to capture images of local people and scenes, including those of the Ojibwe, who had called Minnesota home for centuries. In the book, White explores the negotiation that went on between the photographers and the photographed - and the power the latter wielded.

Ultimately, this book tells more about the people in the pictures - what they were doing on a particular day and how they came to be photographed - than about the photographers who documented, and in some cases doctored, views of Ojibwe life. The result is a vivid history of a people at home in Minnesota's landscape.

The exhibit offers an expanded view of the images presented in White's book. By displaying the photographs, many of them the original 19th century daguerreotypes, cartes de visite and cabinet cards, next to artifacts that exemplify particular photographic contexts, new stories unfold. One item, a leather dress, was a prop worn by multiple subjects. Another, a cradleboard, is typical of those shown in photographs of Ojibwe women and children. Observations by White will also complement these images.

The exhibit was developed with input from White and was curated by Diane Adams-Graf and Anderson. The exhibit team worked closely with Travis Zimmerman, the Society's program coordinator for the Indian Advisory Committee, a group that acts as a liaison between the Society and the state's Indian tribes and urban populations.

The Minnesota History Center is located at 345 Kellogg Blvd. W. in St. Paul. For more information, call (651) 296-6126, or (800) 657-3773 or visit www.mnhs.org.