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April 17, 2013

The Youngest Prisoners: General Nelson A. Miles’s Photographs of Apache Children


John Choate, Chiricahua Apache children upon arrival at Carlisle Indian School from Fort Marion, Florida, November 4, 1886. Formerly owned by General Nelson Miles. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (P06848). Front row (L to R): Clement Seanilzay, Beatrice Kiahtel, Janette Pahgostatum (Pahgostatun), Margaret Y. Nadasthilah, Frederick Eskelsejah (Fred' k Eskelsijah). Middle row (L to R): Humphrey Eseharzay (Escharzay), Samson Noran, Basil Ekarden. Back row (L to R): Hugh Chee, Bishop Eatennah, Ernest Hogee. 

In the May 2013 issue of True West magazine, Fort Sill Apache Tribal Chairman Jeff Haozous gives a compelling account of the Apache Wars (1849­–1886) from an Apache perspective. To illustrate his article, “The Apache Wars in Apache Words,” Mr. Haozous selected two photographs from the museum’s Photo Archives collection. Significantly, General Nelson A. Miles owned these and other Apache War photographs in the collection. Written in collaboration with Mr. Haozous, within the context of his True West article, this post explores a few additional Apache War photographs that belonged to Miles.

In September 1886, Geronimo, Naiche, and other Chiricahua Apache men, women, and children surrendered to Miles in Mexico. In breach of the terms of surrender, the U.S. government separated their prisoners—the men were sent to Fort Pickens and the women and children to Fort Marion. Soon after their arrival in Florida the children were removed to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Mr. Haozous explains that many of these children died at Carlisle. To protect its reputation, the school began to send sick children back to their mothers in Florida.

John Choate, Chiricahua Apache children four months after arrival at Carlisle Indian School from Fort Marion, Florida, March 1887. Formerly owned by General Nelson Miles. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (P06847). Back row (L to R): Hugh Chee, Frederick Eskelsejah (Fred' k Eskelsijah), Clement Seanilzay, Samson Noran, Ernest Hogee. Middle row: Margaret Y. Nadasthilah. Front row (L to R): Humphrey Escharzay, Beatrice Kiahtel, Janette Pahgostatum, Bishop Eatennah, Basil Ekarden.

How does the fraught history recounted by Mr. Haozous influence the interpretation of the “before-and-after” portraits made of the young Apache prisoners in Pennsylvania? And what associated significance does General Miles’s ownership of two sets of these same photographs have? It is likely that Miles either received as a gift or acquired the photographs as a congratulatory testament to his pivotal role in “civilizing” these Apache children. Mr. Haozous’s history, however, particularly challenges the civilizing narrative intended in the “after” photograph. In this photograph, the coifed hair, full cheeks, noticeably whitened skin (a common photographer’s trick, but put to frightful ideological use in this context), and meticulous uniforms flawlessly conceal the bodily trauma—removal, illness, death—recently experienced by these young people.

                                                                        — Heather A. Shannon (Photo Archivist, NMAI)                                                                         & Jeff Haozous (Fort Sill Apache Tribal Chairman)


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Many ancestors of my tribal family were at the Carlisle Indian school. Many ran away and made their way back to Massachusetts. So, sad that the true history of this school has been hidden for so long.

Wow; a picture really is worth 1,000 words. Hopefully we can eventually learn from these past mistakes and learn to all live in peace.

This second picture looks fake, "civilized" like article writer noticed.

John Nicholas Choate is my ancester. His photography just came to my attention as I was working on my ancestry page and discovered his career. I sense he was showing how the Indians came to the school in their native attire and native awareness but somehow after only a few months at the school they were changed to become "more civilized" looking which in my opinion was not a choice of theirs. I look at these photos and see so much in their faces and their eyes and am happy that John captured them in photographs before they had to adapt to what people felt they should look like. I hope as I delve deeper into John's life I will find he felt the same way. I am just beginning this search and hope to find more on his life and his photography passion.

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