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Land and Collections Acknowledgement

The University of Michigan was funded by and founded on Anishinaabeg (including Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi) lands ceded in coercive historical treaties and through the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, most notably through the 1817 Treaty of Fort Meigs.

The William L. Clements Library at U-M acknowledges that it has and continues to benefit from the original land dispossession and established hierarchies of settler colonialism. We acknowledge that the sources used on this project often do not represent the wills of Indigenous peoples; that many of the photographs representing Native Americans were used for commercial purposes that didn’t benefit the subjects of the photos; and that the photos were often part of a larger power dynamic that ultimately resulted in Native land dispossession and forced removal.

In addition, we acknowledge that the collecting and purchasing of photographs of Native Americans, even if done in the context of a publicly accessible institutions, keeps the ownership of these objects in the hands of our institution, as opposed to living ancestors or specific tribes, and thus perpetuates some facets of settler colonialism. As one means of mitigating this, the individuals collaborating on this project worked to build reciprocal relationships with tribal members and sought insight, comment, and feedback throughout the project. We also aim to hold ourselves more accountable by viewing the Clements as the current custodian, not gate keeper, of these objects containing Indigenous intellectual property and by removing barriers to access to these materials.

Finally, this exhibit is thematically rooted in questions of consent, agency, myth-making, and representation. We hope that this exhibit shows the production and circulation of images of Native Americans as one vital piece in a larger, ongoing battle over sovereignty and recognition. We implore you to join us in investigating the lasting relationship between the medium of photography and the legacy of American Indian representation and ask yourselves: what does it mean to be part of a new audience consuming these photographs? In doing so, we hope that you, like us, will recognize both the legacy of overwhelming oppression inherently meshed with the creation of these materials as well as the resilience of the complex cultures and unique individuals.

Native Midwest: Who and Where are the Anishinaabe?

The “Three Fires” of the Anishinaabe — Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi — have been especially prominent among the many people of the Great Lakes Region categorized by the Census Bureau as “Indian.” The federal census is one of the primary sources describing the geographic distribution of the Anishinaabe during the early 20th century. In 1790 it began to count the American population every ten years for the purpose of allocating political power and federal taxation. It only attempted to include all Indians in 1890. 

Census Map of Anishinaabe populations in 1930
Census map and data collected by Arland Thornton and Lindsey Willow Smith,
photo edits provided by Veronica Cook Williamson
Populations Studies Center, University of Michigan, 2020

Like all data collection, the census has errors, including missing people in the count and misreporting information about people who are counted. Errors in reporting Native Americans were likely particularly high due to the difficult history between them and the U.S. government. Yet, the census still provides an approximate picture of the geographic distribution of the Anishinaabe. This map shows counties in 1930 with ten or more people identified as either Ojibwe, Odawa, or Potawatomi. Counties colored red indicate an Anishinaabe majority, blue indicates an Anishinaabe minority. Black dots indicate where photos from the exhibit were taken.


From the 1830s to the early 1900s photography went from a specialized and labor-intensive scientific medium to a beloved hobby for many. Photographic styles and practices set visual trends, forwarded stereotypes, maintained myths, and, as always, operated within the ideology of the time. Throughout the same decades, twenty new states joined the Union, including Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—leading to the assimilation and displacement of countless Native populations. 

Early American photographers—whether employed by the United States government,  professional photographic companies, or one of the many individual itinerants crossing the continent—were motivated by curiosity, adventure, and money. Photographers sought images that recorded the people and events of this new frontier and could be sold within an expanding market eager for those stories. 

This exhibit examines the photographic styles and practices that recorded the people, activities, stereotypes, and myths of this important time, focusing on the Anishinaabe people of the Great Lakes region and beyond. 

Photography Among the Seneca Indians
John Wentworth Sanborn
The International Annual of The Photographic Bulletin, 1891

The title of this exhibit derives from this excerpt from a photographic journal from 1891. The author describes convincing a Native man to pose for a photograph, assuring him no one will see it, before immediately and unironically publishing it for all readers of the Photographic Bulletin to consume. While situations like this are not the case for every photo taken of Native individuals at this time, cases like this cannot be forgotten.

Photography can be a tool of colonialism, as well as a tool of sovereignty and self identification.

We hope the title of this exhibit: “No, not even for a picture”: Re-examining the Native Midwest and Tribes’ Relationships to the History of Photography points towards the complex balance between violation of privacy and consent and the quest for self-identification felt by Native peoples during this early era of photography.

Consent and Agency

Vital when approaching photographs of Native Americans are questions of consent, agency, and use. Did the Native subject consent for a photo to be taken? Did they request the photograph? What has it been used for since it was taken? The exact answers are rarely clear, but the various options merit consideration.

Written by Marcus H. Rogers, the following quote from Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin, 1886, highlights the symbolic violence of ‘shooting’ with a camera. Rogers describes stealing shots of Native women. This example is complex, however, as the women turn their backs and record their resistance in the photograph. Other sitters are often unable to show their disagreement within their photo.

Photographic Experiences in Florida
Marcus H. Rogers
Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin, 1886

Behind the Image

Photographers had varied motives for photographing Native Americans. The back or “verso” of photographs provide insight into the ways that photographers branded their work.

Click through the following image carousels to see the back of a photograph followed by the front. Does the back establish expectations or assumptions about what is on the front? Does the image on the front align with those expectations? 

Carte de visite and Cabinet photographs
Various photographers
ca. 1870-1890

Versos could be as benign as advertising prices for photographs of ‘Noted Indians’ or construct a more mythic product by noting epilepsy cures. Some versos show use in more alarming contexts. Several examples have been found that carry the label from the 2nd International Congress of Eugenics at the American Museum of Natural History in 1921.

Inscriptions and stamps reveal the extent of circulation and the legacy of multiple owners who quite literally leave a mark on history. One verso carries a stamp from the press photo editorial office of the Danish publishing house Gyldendal. The inscription at the top features a German translation of the caption from the front of the photograph.

Reading photographs

There are a variety of ways that viewers deduce content and meaning from photographs. The context of who, what, where and when can be revealing. Interrogation of the image can include:

  • Who or what is central in the composition?
  • Is the posture or body language suggestive, submissive, assertive, proud?
  • What is the setting? Is it a photographer’s studio, an individual’s home, business, an outdoor space?
  • Are there physical clues, clothing, or objects present? The clothing and material culture can provide details of status and position within many societies.
  • What is the action taking place? Is the photographer a participant or an observer?
  • Do the subjects of the photo acknowledge a relationship to the photographer?
  • Is there text directly associated with the image? What does it tell us?
  • Was the photographer a professional known for a particular type of photograph?

Explore the Exhibit

Select any one of the following options to begin exploring the exhibit, or navigate with the Table of Contents to the left. The sections can be approached in any order.