September 30, 2013

October is American Archives Month. Otoe–Missouria Language Director Sky Campbell shares his experience at the NMAI Archive Center

Throughout October—American Archives Month—we celebrate the exceptional collections that can be found in archives throughout the United States. As an archivist at NMAI, I am privileged to work with unique primary sources that document the cultural heritage of the Native peoples of the Americas. These source records often contextualize the lives and work of individuals, families, or organizations, and can include original documents like letters, notebook, and essays, as well as photographs, films, and sound recordings. The job of an archivist is to organize, describe, and provide access to these materials. The job of an NMAI archivist also includes reaching out to members of Native communities to build relationships of reciprocity and mutual respect. 

This past June over 50 Native scholars and linguists participated in the Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages. As a kick-off to American Archives Month, I asked Breath of Life participant Sky Campbell (Otoe–Missouria) if he would share some of his experiences working with the museum’s archival materials, which he happily agreed to do. 

Sky.Campbell a
Sky Campbell doing research in the M. R. Harrington papers in the NMAI Archive Center, 2013. Throughout the early 1900s, Harrington collected objects, took photographs, and made notes among Native tribes for NMAI’s predecessor institution. Harrington’s papers are a part of the Museum of the America Indian, Heye Foundation records. Photo by Rachel Menyuk, NMAI.

Over the past few years, we have gathered a wealth of language information from historical documents, various recordings, and tribal members. It is exciting to find a new source of language information because it means we can potentially find terminology that we currently do not have, or maybe find a precedent for a sentence structure that we need. Sometimes new sources do not give us any new information, sometimes new sources answer questions that we have, and sometimes new sources create new questions. 

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A page from M. R. Harrington’s notes on Otoe bundles in the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation records, box 241, folder 3. National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution. Photo by NMAI Photo Services.

The results were astounding! After spending a few years researching the Otoe–Missouria language, I figured that I knew about most, if not all, of the locations where Otoe-Missouria language information was kept. And if I did not have the actual information from a location, at least I knew of the location. Or so I thought. I was pleasantly surprised to find Otoe–Missouria language information at the CRC. My excitement grew as we continued to find more and more information. I reluctantly had to leave the CRC that first day without having gone through all that I wanted to and immediately set up another visit before the end of Breath of Life. After the next, more thorough visit, I left with what I went there for, but even then I could not shake the feeling that there was more to be found. 

The information we found at the CRC has allowed us to give names to various historic and/or sacred items. We originally thought that we might have to invent our own terms for these items. These new inventions would have been sufficient; however, we very much prefer to have the terms that were actually used. That is what makes finds like this so exciting. Anything that is found helps us with our goals. With that thought in mind, we are extremely grateful to the CRC staff for their help in making this material available to us.

This experience has given us new hope that there are more as-yet-undiscovered treasures to be found. The hard part is knowing where to look. So if you haven’t already, look into the archives in Washington, D. C. Places like the Cultural Resources Center may take your language revitalization efforts to a whole new level. 

—Sky Campbell, language director, Otoe–Missouria Tribe 

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“My Oto interpreter and his family,” photograph by M. R. Harrington, circa 1910. Sky Campbell identiified the adults as Grant Cleghorn (Otoe) and Madeline Cleghorn (Sac and Fox), and the children as Jimmy and Mary Cleghorn. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (P23435).

One goal for American Archives Month is to promote the importance of unique materials that document someone’s life or work. Sky is right about undiscovered treasures. Often these types of primary sources are forgotten about or remain hidden to everyday researchers. Technology is changing that. Now, with online finding aids and digitization technology, archival collections can become more available to community members who may not be able to travel to Washington, D.C., or another archival center.

It's also true that these materials aren’t necessarily stored in a museum, at a university library, or in a local historical society or tribal archive. They may also be in your family home, tucked away in an attic or file cabinet, or on a shelf somewhere. They could be letters from grandparents or photographs of birthday parties that contextualize something in your family’s history.

Is there a time you found something in an archive—either doing formal research (at the NMAI Archive Center, for example!) or by happening upon documents, photos, or audio-cassettes at home—that really impacted you?

We would love to hear your story about a time you found something exciting in the archives. Send your stories to and periodically throughout October we will be highlighting how archives are important to you.

—Rachel Menyuk, NMAI

Rachel Menyuk works in the National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution. 

To read more:

The Otoe–Missouria Tribe and the Otoe Language Program 

Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages 

The Society of American Archivists on American Archives Month

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Archive Center

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September 26, 2013

In the Archives: A Poignant Drawing of a Selk’nam Man by Charles W. Furlong

Charles Furlong Ona Drawing
Drawing of a Selk’nam (Ona) man wearing a guanaco robe and headdress made by Charles W. Furlong in the Heye Museum visitors’ sign-in book, April 25, 1914. Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation Records, box 595, folder 11. National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.

In the Archive Center of the National Museum of the American Indian, I recently came across a pen-and-ink drawing of a Selk’nam (Ona) man—perhaps the portrait of a specific individual—created by Charles W. Furlong (1874–1967). It was drawn from memory and on the spot in a sign-in book when Furlong visited the Heye collection on April 25, 1914.

Though neither chartered nor open to the public, what had become known informally as the Heye Museum was the forerunner of the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation, itself the forerunner of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. The “museum,” located at 10 East 33rd Street in New York City, was several floors in a loft building. There George G. Heye stored his private collection and showed it to, among others, prominent people in the field of anthropology, including Adolf Bandolier, Samuel A. Barrett, Franz Boas, J. Walter Fewkes, Walter Hough, Alfred Kidder, Alfred Kroeber, Carl Lumholtz, George Pepper, Zellia Nutall, Frederick Ward Putman, Marshall Saville, Charles C. Willoughby, and Clark Wissler. And from there Heye (and his mother) funded more than 30 archaeological and ethnographic collecting expeditions that literally spanned the Western Hemisphere.

Between 1904, when he began to collect systematically, and 1916, when he founded the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation, Heye amassed well over 50,000 objects representing the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Included among them were Selk’nam and Yámana objects from the southernmost tip of South America collected by Furlong in 1907, 1908, and 1910. 

Well educated, keenly intelligent, adventurous, an artist and a writer, Furlong had a remarkable career. He served in the U.S. Army during World War I. Afterward, he was the special military aide to President Woodrow Wilson, then a military intelligence officer in the Balkans, Near East, and Middle East. Before his military service, however, Furlong became interested in studying worlds “not yet documented,” beginning with a significant stretch of the Sahara Desert. Like Heye, he was a member of the Explorers Club. Founded in New York City in 1904, the Explorers Club was made up of men who “traveled the earth, the seas, and the skies,” and who gathered at lectures and annual dinners to share stories of their expeditions. It is quite possible, even likely, that Heye first met Furlong at this illustrious club.

When Furlong made his trip to the archipelago off the southernmost tip of South America, the Yámana and Selk’nam lived on the large string of islands called Tierra del Fuego (“land of fire”). The Selk’nam lived on the largest of these islands, Isla Grande, while the Yámana lived on the smaller islands to the south and west. These two peoples had surprisingly frequent, though extremely sporadic, contact with Europeans from the time of Ferdinand Magellan’s historic circumnavigation of the Earth. Magellan explored the coast of the tip of South America in 1520 when he sailed from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific through what is now known as the Strait of Magellan. Magellan is credited with being the first European to make that passage, but, of course, Yámana (and perhaps Selk’nam as well) boats were navigating those very waters long before his arrival. Yámana, in particular, were maritime hunters who harvested the rich marine life around Tierra del Fuego. The Selk’nam and Yámana were also the people whom Charles Darwin encountered on the second survey expedition of HMS Beagle during the winter of 1832–33. 

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Two Selk’nam (Ona) families, 1908. North of the eastern end of Lake Cami, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Photo by Charles W. Furlong. Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library. Used with permission. 

The Selk’nam and Yámana were less impacted by European contact than many Native peoples. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, their populations virtually collapsed under the sudden and overwhelming increase of European settlers. Furlong wrote about his trip to “the southernmost habitat of man” with sympathy and intelligence in the February and June 1909 issues of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, which funded his expedition. He later wrote about the Selk’nam and Yámana, and other indigenous Fuegian peoples, in far greater depth in the January and March 1917 issues of The Geographical Review and in the March 1933 issue of The Geographical Journal.

Furlong was fully cognizant of the fact that the populations of the local indigenous peoples had recently and dramatically declined. Immediately after his first trip, he wrote in Harper’s Monthly that the “advance agents of civilization—bullets, drink and disease—have not only done their work, but have done it quickly.” Though he spoke in his articles of “the rotten rum and more rotten morals” of “civilization”—the ironic quotations marks around civilization are his—Furlong did not mention the fact that that gold had been discovered in Tierra del Fuego in 1879, leading to massive immigration and the burgeoning of settlements. And while he wrote of the Selk’nam that the “closest analysis of this splendid tribe was too often along the sights of a Winchester or Remington,” he did not write that Selk’nam were literally hunted down for money by European sheep ranchers who wanted their land. Despite the efforts of the few Church of England and Silesian (Roman Catholic) missionaries—seemingly the only outsiders who cared about their wellbeing—the Selk’nam and Yánama were all but annihilated during a 50-year period. Today, very few people identify themselves as Yámana or Selk'nam descendants, let alone as Yámana or Selk'nam.

In the 19th century, the 1882­–83 French scientific mission to Cape Horn produced a number of striking albumen prints of Yámana. These photographs are housed in the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. According to the Dartmouth College Library in Hanover, New Hampshire, where Furlong’s papers are archived, Furlong left behind phonograph records of speech and song of the Fuegian tribes, notes, correspondence, and hundreds of photographs, negatives, and lantern slides. The Selk’nam and Yámana objects Furlong collected are housed in several American museums, including the American Museum of Natural History, New York; Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo, New York; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts; and what is now the National Museum of the American Indian.

Between 1918 and 1924, Martin Gusinde (1886–1969), a German priest and respected ethnologist, lived among the remaining Selk’nam and Yámana. Gusinde made audio recordings and published several important ethnographic works. Anthropologist, Samuel K. Lothrop collected objects among both the Selk’man and Yánama for the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation in 1925. In recent years, a small number of documentaries have been made incorporating remarkable vintage film footage of Selk’nam and Yámana. These are available from Documentary Educational Resources. A short, but extraordinary film clip was made in 1928  by the Italian missionary and explorer Father Alberto María d'Agostini; footage of the Selk’nam and Yámana begins a minute or so into the film.

Tragically, these materials together constitute what are among the few glimpses that remain today into the lives of the Selk’nam and Yámana, memory of whom—that they existed and in specific ways—Furlong inscribed in ink on paper when he signed into the Heye Museum on April 25, 1914—seven years after the Selk’nam and Yámana inscribed their lives, their presence, their reality on to his consciousness. 

Cécile R. Ganteaume, NMAI 

144NEF_Cecile smCécile R. Ganteaume is the curator, most recently, of the Circle of Dance exhibition on view at NMAI-New York. She is also the curator of the exhibition An Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian also on view in New York, and is the editor of its accompanying book. She is a recipient of a 2011 Smithsonian Secretary’s Excellence in Research Award. She joined the National Museum of the American Indian in when it was established as part of the Smithsonian. Photo by R.A.Whiteside, NMAI. 



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Kinda neat knowing that Darwin communicated with these people.

Cécile Ganteaume is a better curator than I could ever hope to be.

Indigenous peoples is a legacy that we have a duty to protect them and above all respect, very interesting document, congratulations.

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.

January 16, 2013

Blazing New Frontiers: The National Congress of American Indians and the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy

Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010), box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38067

We gather here not only mindful of heavy burdens but also full of hope. We want to believe there is a New Frontier, a New Trail. Our faith is renewed that with our renewed effort and cooperation of the Tribes, their friends, and the U.S. government working together, we will be able to find better solutions to the problems we face. 

 —Angus Wilson, Nez Perce Tribal Chairman
Conventions and Mid-Year Conferences: Speeches, 1961. 
National Congress of American Indian records, box 12.


One of the highlights of my job at the NMAI Archive Center is helping people find those bits of information hidden in folders that, when put together, contribute to a picture of the past. Since the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) records is one of NMAI’s largest archival collections, I recently decided to learn more about the history of the NCAI in order to better assist researchers and answer reference questions. For this reason, I picked up Thomas Cowger’s book The National Congress of American Indians : The Founding Years and enthusiastically dove in. I was particularly curious about the role of Helen Peterson (Oglala Lakota), whose papers NMAI also has available for research.

During Peterson’s tenure as Executive Director of NCAI, from 1953 to 1961, one of her tasks was to work with the Indian Organization Committee for the 1961 Presidential Inaugural Parade. The election of John F. Kennedy was seen as a step in a new and hopeful direction for U.S. Indian policy. Accordingly, NCAI thought it only fitting to name its float in the parade “First New Frontier.” Helen Peterson and the NCAI also helped enter four additional parade floats from different Indian communities and arranged for the participation of more than 200 representatives from 22 different tribes.

On the morning of January 20th, 1961, despite a storm the previous night that covered the city in snow, all of the parade participants lined up along the icy streets of Washington to celebrate the inauguration. Hailing from 13 different states, the “Indian Unit” stood out impressively with its five floats, six jeeps, and 64-piece Arizona Navajo Intertribal Band, whose membership had grown to include Zuni, Hopi, Pima, Hualapai, Mojave, and Maricopa musicians. (Interesting side note: The Arizona Navajo Intertribal Band is now called the Navajo Nation Band, and they will be participating in the 2013 Inaugural Parade.  You can see a full list of this year’s parade participants here.)

Determined to keep everyone organized and on schedule, Peterson had laid out in full detail who would be on which float and the order in which they would process down Pennsylvania Avenue. Below are the final float descriptions submitted to the Inaugural Parade Committee. (All descriptions are from the Helen Peterson papers [NMAI.AC.016], box 11, NCAI Subject File, Inaugural, 1961.) 

Float 1: Rosebud Sioux, South Dakota Centennial 1961

National Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010), box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38058

 “Rosebud Sioux Indians, South Dakota, performing traditional and authentic Chief’s Dance honoring President Kennedy. Rosebud Sioux Tribe is joined by Oglala and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes, also with reservations in South Dakota. All performers on the float are 'Plains' Indian tribal members. This is the state of South Dakota float in observance of the state’s centennial.”


Float 2: The First New Frontier—1620 

National Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010), box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38057

“This float (sponsored by the National Congress of American Indians) symbolizes the friendliness and generosity with which the Indians met the first new settlers and is intended to convey the richness of the continent that was the first new frontier. Squash, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, tobacco were among the food products developed by the Indians that were unknown to the Old World. Contrary to popular belief, the Indians first met the white settlers with friendly curiosity. (The snowstorm ruined the display of vegetables and the real turkey that, were to have been a part of the float . . .)”


Float 3: Sacajawea and Lewis and Clark Blaze Montana’s New Frontier 

National Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010), box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38064

“In the first few years of the 1800s, a Shoshone Indian woman who became the wife of Charbonneaux, a trader, led the Lewis and Clark expedition through the Northwest to open up that vast area. With a baby on her back, Sacajawea was a symbol of peace and cooperation. The small tepee is a symbol of the tepees used by the Plains Indians. The mural on the float was done by a Creek Indian artist in Washington who is employed by the U.S. Department of State. There are many dogs in Indian camps and the dog on this float was loaned by Metropolitan policemen. After the dog was selected from some thirty offers to the Montana committee, it turned out the dog’s name is NIXON.”


Float 4: White Mountain Apache Crown Dance 

National Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010), box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38060

“This float is composed entirely of White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers, singers and Apache women from Arizona. The dancers are students from the high school in White River, Arizona. One of the singers is Chairman of the Tribe, elected by his people. This float indicates some of the differences among the Indian Tribes of which there are more than a hundred major tribes in the U.S. today with significant populations or land holding, the title to which is held in trust by the U.S. Government.”


Float 5: Contributions of the First Americans  

National Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010) Box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38068

“Sponsored by the Navajo Tribe which spreads over almost sixteen million acres in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, this float calls attention to the many contributions the First Americans have made to the social, economic and political life of the United States. 'Miss Indian America' is a symbol of the rich resource of Indian youth. She is Vivian Arviso, member of the Navajo Tribe, 18 years old, and a student at Colorado College.”


Though many participants were undoubtedly cold and damp by the end of the parade, spirits must have been high: NCAI won runner-up for most creative float.

For more information on the NCAI records or the Helen Peterson papers, please feel free to contact the Archive Center at The NMAI Archive Center also would like to welcome tribal community members to Washington, D.C., for the Native Nations Inaugural Ball and the “Out of Many Festival” which will be held January 18th through the 20th at the museum on the National Mall.

—Rachel Menyuk, archives technician, NMAI Archive Center

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It is so refreshing to see the history of the past in display realizing how it impacted the nation in the present generation.

This is so important, to help educate people about the history of the american indians in relation to the start of this country.

It is really important to share the history of the past and how it impacted the future of the country. People should learn way more about it.

August 22, 2012

Digitizing the Museum's Photo Archives: 75,000 Images and Counting

By Will Greene

My primary function at the National Museum of the American Indian is the creation of digital versions of the museum’s extensive archive of tens of thousands of historical photographic negatives, prints, transparencies, and lantern slides. Digitization affords many benefits both to the collection itself and to users of the archive. Direct handling of archival materials is rendered largely unnecessary, and the possibility of damage or loss is correspondingly dramatically reduced. Because the image files contain detailed embedded information on the date and time of digitization (along with many other things), each is a snapshot condition report on the photograph showing scratches, discoloration, tears, cracked glass, etc. Once digitized, an image can be printed, burned to a disk, or transmitted over a network or the Internet. Digital copies can be created in a variety of file sizes and formats, and every copy will duplicate the detail and tonality of the original digital image much more closely than was possible with traditional silver image photo technology. Once entered into a searchable database, the photos can be accessed and analyzed rapidly and efficiently by anyone with computer access.

Over the course of my career at NMAI, I have been able to digitize more than 75,000 photos, making substantial inroads into the overall task. In the early years we suffered through some fits and starts in determining standards, but once those were established we began to accumulate significant digital resources. Initially materials were digitized in response to end-user requests, both from internal and external institutions and individuals. In the years leading up to the opening of the museum on the National Mall in Washington, creating new digitizations for exhibitions and books took most of my time. As the museum’s digital resources have grown and new tools for search and retrieval have come along, more and more image requests can be fulfilled from existing image files. This has afforded an opportunity to direct further digitization efforts in a more rational and focused way, concentrating on completion of significant collections or on materials that demand special handling or are particularly fragile. 

One such project is digitizing the Churchill collection. Frank C. Churchill (1859–1912) was an inspector of reservations for the U.S. government from 1899 to 1909. In this position, Churchill traveled the country from Florida to Alaska, often with his wife, Clara. As an avid photographer he assembled a significant personal archive. The museum collection contains some 469 negatives and 3,710 prints housed in 28 photo albums.

The photo albums present a number of challenges. Hundred-year-old leather covers and album pages wrinkled with age must be handled very carefully. The pages have been interleaved with acid free paper to prevent deterioration, and this material must be removed and replaced each time you turn a page. Any handling of these old albums, no matter how careful, will result in some debris and the scanning equipment must be cleaned constantly. It’s a time-consuming process, and the best, most efficient method is to go through each album completely and digitize every print that has relevance to the museum. 

Because most of the photos in the albums have not been widely seen, I’ve tried to use broad criteria in deciding which images to scan. I’m looking for named individuals (many of the photographs have information on the date, location, and tribe); folks wearing traditional apparel and/or engaged in traditional crafts or activities; significant and/or traditional structures (such as the Cherokee National Capitol in 1905 or an Apache wikiup in 1899); group photos which have dates and locations (there are lots of school groups); photos of the creators of the albums (but not every one—the Churchills loved to photograph each other); or gatherings like dances, ceremonies, etc., especially when a date and location are noted. I’ve also included some images of famous and much-photographed places, mostly in the Southwest—Mesa Verde, various pueblos, etc., where the date is given, as these might prove useful to anyone tracking the changes in these places.

I think perhaps the greatest value of the albums is the caption material linking the images to a particular time and place with a very high degree of reliability. This greatly enhances their research value. 


The photograph above—which was given the museum catalog number P23360_143—was taken at the Santa Fe Indian School circa 1904. It is captioned in the margin, “Just arrived—Navajo Indian girls.” Then, “Several of these girls had never seen a white man until they met the clerk of the agency who brought them to the school.”

Unfortunately, many photographs' captions, like this one, fail to record the subjects' names. Sometimes the museum has been able to recover that information, working with tribal museums and scholars. By sharing digitized images with more viewers, I hope the museum will reach community and family members who can help us link photographs to individual lives and histories. 

You don’t have to know the whole sad history of the government boarding schools, however, to look at the faces of these six girls and see the fear, anger, anxiety, and resentment written there. Sometimes a picture is truly worth a thousand words, and we’ve got lots and lots of pictures. 

Will Greene is a digital imaging specialist on the museum's Photo Services staff. This is the first in a series of blog posts about his work and the museum's photography collections.

If you have information about a photograph Will discusses, and you would rather not post it as a comment, you can reach him via email at 

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quite amazing to see picture clarity of that time.

It is a great work that the the National Museum of the American Indian has created digital versions of the museum’s extensive archive of tens of thousands of historical photographic negatives, prints, transparencies, and lantern slides. This digitization affords have many benefits to the users of the archive. Thanks a lot to them.