WASHINGTON - For the first time ever, an American Indian tribe is sponsoring an exhibit at a major national museum.
To draw attention to its continuing struggle and that of tribes across the country, the Sandia Pueblo of New Mexico is sponsoring "Native Lands," a collection of 19th century western photographs at the Corcoran Gallery of Art here. They are from the personal collection of Robert G. Lewis of Denver and show western landscapes and American Indian people of the 19th century.
"These photos are remarkable as objects of art, but our decision to sponsor this show is based on the impacts this type of photography had in the past, and is still having today," said Sandia Gov. Stuwart Paisano.
The photographs were taken by some of the most famous photographers of the 19th century including Timothy O'Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, Frank J. Haynes, Delancy Gill, John Graybill, J.K. Hillers, and Antonio Shindler.
During the American Indian wars, many of these photographs were taken to depict Native people as strange and threatening, an obstacle to Manifest Destiny and control of the frontier. Once confined to the reservation, the photographs began to show American Indian people as relics of the past and a vanishing race.
The Sandia say they think the exhibit shows how Native peoples and their lands were originally viewed by Americans and how this negatively affected the rights of American Indian people today.
"What if American Indian people during the 19th century had the opportunity to tell their stories and present their images and views in the media of the time?" Paisano asked. "Would this have changed the West as we know it today?"
Landscapes in the exhibit show sweeping canyon vistas and great rivers, while the portraits show a broad range of American Indians, famous and not so famous. There are pictures of Geronimo posing for a camera at a state fair, and Red Cloud seated in a chair after his war with the U.S. Army. There are pictures of Wounded Knee, just after the massacre, and even a picture called "Indian Madonna," a portrait of a Mojave girl and baby posed to look like Mary and Jesus.
"On one level, these photographs are documents, on another, they are beautiful art," said Paul Roth, the exhibition curator and Corcoran's assistant curator of photography and media arts. "Seen together, these landscapes and portraits tell us two parallel stories, about the development of the American West and about the subjugation of Native American culture."
The Sandia say they are hoping those who view the exhibit will come away with a better understanding of how these kinds of images have come to impact the lives of American Indian people and the rights of tribal governments. The Sandia themselves are embroiled in a battle over the control of some of their own "native lands," Sandia Mountain in Albuquerque, N.M.
In 1994, the pueblo sued the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, seeking a judgment that would designate the main ridge of Sandia Mountain as the pueblo's eastern boundary and correct an original survey conducted by Interior in 1859 which the pueblo claims is incorrect.
The pueblo contends that a Spanish land grant in 1748, confirmed by Congress in 1858, sets the eastern boundary as "the main ridge" of Sandia Mountain. However, an Interior survey conducted in 1859 sets the eastern boundary in the foothills, 10,000 acres fewer than the original grant.
Most of the area claimed by the pueblo lies within National Forest land and is designated as wilderness. About 700 acres is private property. The pueblo suit expressly excludes all "private land, leases, permits, rights-of-way or other encumbrances in favor of private parties." Despite this exclusion, the lower court granted a motion to intervene by a coalition of area homeowners who say they are already "surrounded" by tribal land and would suffer if further land was granted to the pueblo.
In 1998, despite concerns raised by private land holders, the lower court granted the pueblo's motion and denied that of the homeowners. Interior was directed to redraw the boundaries of the pueblo to include the additional 10,000 acres that make up the west face of Sandia Mountain. The Sandia won again when the case was appealed to a higher court.
Under the Clinton administration, the former Interior solicitor also delivered an opinion placing the tribe's boundary at the crest of the mountain. However, Sandia Councilman Frank Chaves says that decision is in jeopardy.
"Everything we worked for is at risk," Chaves said. "From what we've heard the new secretary of Interior plans to review that opinion."
Chaves says tribal officials have seen correspondence between Interior officials which shows that the administration intends to review the case, leaving the final decision still in the air.
"This connection between the land and our people lies at the center of what we're fighting for," Chaves said. "This exhibit is all about that, but even more so it is about how that connection has been distorted and continues to be distorted. Sometimes you have to look back before we can move forward together as neighbors and friends."
The "Native Lands" exhibit of 19th century western photographs is on view at the Corcoran Gallery through Aug. 6.