In 2020, University of Michigan students Veronica Cook Williamson and Lindsey Willow Smith worked with Clements Library staff and others—through a pandemic—to produce a new online exhibition examining early photography of Native Americans. In this guest post, Williamson and Smith walk us through the technical and intellectual aspects of developing the project this year.
The 1864 carte de visite portrait of Wa-Kan-O-Zhan-Zhan is smaller than it looks on a computer screen. It fits comfortably in my hand; I could easily slip it into my pocket to take with me or place it in a small envelope to mail to a peer. In a bygone era, perhaps it was purchased for a few dollars at a store or gallery—claimed, and then proudly displayed, or promenaded about as a metaphorical conquest. The portrait is a material keepsake, able to remind the beholder of either mythic wins or tangible loss. In the portrait, Wa-Kan-O-Zhan-Zhan sits at Fort Snelling after he was condemned to death, and before he was hanged by the United States army. He looks off camera, refusing to meet the camera lens or viewer’s gaze—removing his interiority from the viewer’s grasp. Perhaps this lingering resistance made the carte de visite more valuable, desired, or elusive. Even placed in my hand, 156 years later, Wa-Kan-O-Zhan-Zhan will never be controlled or fully accessible.
Previously, accessing this portrait through a Google Drive, I had been struck primarily by his expression. It contained hints of resignation, or perhaps acceptance—or at least I could imagine those feelings in Wa-Kan-O-Zhan-Zhan’s countenance after he was sentenced to death for advocating for Sioux sovereignty. Looking only at a scan, it is possible to be distracted by the details of the moment surrounding a particular photographer shooting a portrait (or a landscape or still life). In stark contrast to my experience when holding the physical photograph, scrolling through a digital folder of scanned images rendered the distinct experience of physical control over the object and, in a certain sense, its subject invisible.
In curating an online exhibit, it would have been easy to focus on historical exposition or fall into tired narratives and risk obscuring some of the most powerful elements of the photographs— their tangible materiality and physical specificity. After I physically handled the photographs, I knew their materiality was crucial to the exhibit. Thus, the object—the photographs in the Richard Pohrt Jr. Collection of Native American Photography—at the heart of the exhibit ‘No not even for a picture’: Re-examining the Native Midwest and Tribes’ Relationships to the History of Photography required that we center this relationship between materiality, conquest, and representation. Anything else would have done the photographs a disservice, and risked perpetuating colonial re-tellings about a series of representational battles in a war of land and sovereignty in the Midwest.
White Swan, one of Custer’s Scouts (Photographer: Fred E. Miller, possibly between 1898-1904, gelatin silver print, 12.5 x 18cm)
This full length portrait of White Swan (or Meé-nah-tsee-us) features a Crow scout most well known for serving under George Armstrong Custer. It is also one of a few examples in the Richard Pohrt Jr. Collection of Native American Photography in which the photographer places himself (and his camera) within the visual field created by the framing. While this photograph does not feature in the exhibit, it visualizes a central, guiding question: where and how might we see the shadow or specter of photographers in photographs where their physical presence remains outside of a given frame?
This exhibit’s specific focus on the relationship between the materiality of photography and the history of conquest and representation emerged as a product of engaging with the objects in-person only after having begun the curatorial work remotely. In the first week of March, our small team, including my co-curator Lindsey Willow Smith and the Clements’ own Clayton Lewis, Jakob Dopp, and Louis Miller, discussed the details of a physical poster exhibit during our first (and only) in-person team meeting. Like most museums and libraries around the world, the month of March 2020 had other intentions for the William L. Clements Library. Within days of that meeting, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in full force in Ann Arbor, and we began working remotely from our shared Google Drive. This mammoth drive grew to feature not only the upwards of 900 scanned photographs, but also brainstorming documents, slide shows, checklists, catalog resources, and more.
The full transition from envisioning a poster project and working with materials in hand to an online exhibit conceptualized remotely unfurled slowly over months. It wasn’t until July that our new thematic and case-study-based exhibit began to break out of the linear slide show drafts we had been working with. These drafts were, at times, structurally stifling and required that we initially organize the exhibit in a specific order, yet the flexibility of having multiple authors and versions enabled key doses of experimentation. This experimentation led us down the enthralling path of many potential exhibitions, an experience we hope others explore in future additions to this project.
The photographs carried this project forward; they were the life force fighting back against video call malaise and quarantine fatigue. Even in their digital forms they provided motivation, inspiration, and at times despair. In addition to creative labor, this project required emotional labor to varying degrees from both myself and my co-curator Lindsey. As a Chickasaw citizen, I was fairly certain that I would not encounter any relatives in this collection. While there are photographs of individuals from over 70 tribes, there are far more representing Sioux and Anishinaabe individuals. This certainty was not afforded to Lindsey, who, as a Chippewa woman, chanced recognizing faces from her own life in unpredictable circumstances when engaging with the collection. Additionally, because of the geography of my heritage and family and my relative proximity to whiteness, I was never expected to validate or authenticate features of Native experience. Lindsey was an inspired co-curator who was always prepared to navigate difficult subjects and assert her opinion to the benefit of myself, the exhibition, and the Clements Library.
At the time of writing this post, the exhibit is officially ‘live.’ It feels in some way like it was living even before I arrived at the Clements, and that this form of engagement with the collection is far from complete. In this sense, I hope that people browse, critique, and find gaps in the exhibit. I also long for other researchers and curators to approach these photographs ethically and to encounter the stories that remain living within the Pohrt Collection.
—Veronica Cook Williamson
PhD Student, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures; Museum Studies
Plain Long Spear (Photographer: Fred E. Miller, possibly between 1898-1904, gelatin silver print; 12.5 x 18cm).
This full length portrait shows a Crow Indian boy identified as “Plain Long Spear” posing outdoors wearing traditional clothing including a porcupine hair roach headdress, photographed at a downward facing angle with a wide background. While also not featured in the exhibit, this particular photo gives a feeling of observation due to its angle and Plain Long Spear’s squint back, directly into the camera. That gaze asks the viewer the question: what are you doing with your observations of these photos? It is one of the images in the Pohrt collection that arrests the viewer and demands their self-reflection upon viewing.
On March 10th at 4:15pm, I was sitting on the floor of the Tisch Hall stairwell after what I did not know at the time would be my last in-person lecture for the year. I was in a rush to call my father, after receiving the news that I had officially been hired to help make an exhibit focused on early Native American photography at the Clements Library.
On March 11th at 4:15pm, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel sent a university-wide email stating all classes would be remote to the end of the semester and that all large events would be cancelled, resulting in the domino effect in the following week of the rest of the university shutting down and going remote.
I did still have the job though; the Clements hadn’t lost my funding. No one knew what that would mean, least of all me, the undergrad who had never worked in a museum before. The team of us—myself, Veronica Cook Williamson, Clayton Lewis, Jakob Dopp, and Louis Miller, had met in person only once.
To start, we figured out how to Zoom meet each other, and then how myself and co-curator Veronica, a wonderful Chickasaw citizen and graduate student, would see the images from the collection. Following the decision to use a massive shared Google Drive after complications with the server, Veronica and I went through the collection and decided to rewrite the outline of the project to better represent Native voices. We did this on various iterations of a working document, bulletting out lists and leaving comments about section ideas, what photos we wanted to include, and how to highlight the multiplicity of Native perspectives. Given the real time updates and the group-accessible nature of Google Docs, this was a great platform to use. We moved from the idea of having an in-person poster exhibit to a fully online exhibit, as well as changed the focus of the exhibit itself.
Then started the iterations of slideshow presentations. Being within the Google Suite we all used, it wasn’t hard to transfer over. It did not start as the place we thought we would be making the exhibit, it started as just wanting to see some of the images in the collection together in sections we had outlined. Then we started adding caption ideas, commenting on each others’ captions, and adding sources until the presentation ballooned to a massive 130 slides, with about 90 sources and around 10,000 words of captioning—far too massive to be an exhibit online or in-person for the Clements. However, in making the exhibit come together in this massive slideshow, it was easy to collaborate and to move slides and text boxes with captions around. Google Slides also has the commenting feature that Google Docs has, which made questions about editing between members of the group simple.
Upon major decisions to change aspects of the exhibit, such as its organizational structure or cutting out large sections, we would create a copy of the slideshow, allowing us to have multiple iterations we could access of our work. We were able to see what we had changed, and if we wanted to bring something back that we had previously cut, we merely had to dig an older iteration of our slideshow exhibit out of the Drive.
We were meeting as a full team over Zoom once a week during this time, and Veronica and I met an additional one to two times a week outside of these larger meetings. Occasionally the team would meet with someone we wanted advice or review from, such as Eric Hemenway, Director of Repatriation, Archives and Records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and Arland Thornton, Professor of Sociology, Population Studies, and Survey Research at the University of Michigan, who both assisted in providing outside information for this project. Our transition to the remote world was complete, and functioning well—better than most of us would have thought we would have been able to shift.
There was a mental toll on this work though. Zoom fatigue was prevalent at the end of most days, and the motivation to do the work was not always easy to come by. Making a schedule made things easier, as I lived by myself in an apartment in Ann Arbor during this summer with no one to hold me accountable for my work but myself. It was wonderful to work with the team, but when the Zoom call was over I was always aware how alone I was. There were only four or five hours a week of direct discussion and collaboration in these meetings, and the rest was individually done. While we all managed, it did at times become unpleasant.
Those are the obvious crosses to bear in this pandemic. There was a tax on my own emotional state from this work, this specific work, as well, much of which Veronica has detailed. As a Chippewa woman, the balancing of my views and experiences with those of the Clements was as much a chore as any, and the investment I had in representing the voices of the people within the images was taken into account during the caption drafting. As a Native in the workplace, this work managed to energize me, but also to tire me for that same reason. The inequity of emotional investment was nothing new, I’ve been the only Native person on projects based on Native people before and at least this time my co-curator Veronica was there to talk to and laugh with digitally, but it was hard at times, and acknowledging this difficulty is not a point of weakness but a move made to highlight this emotional tax not everyone had to pay.
The work itself though, and in particular drafting captions that provided context and perspective on the photographs, was empowering. Being able to write a land acknowledgement that was more than just a few sentences and having it be the first land acknowledgement the Clements has ever had on an exhibit—that was exhilarating. When speaking with elders and community members about the work, they were excited to hear of what I was able to do and bring to the Clements. There was pride taken by some of the community members I spoke to, that Native voices would be heard on an institutional level within an exhibit.
The exhibit is now up on the Clements’ website, after the incredible efforts put forth by Veronica in the website design creating such a beautiful display of the drafting we worked on as a team. It is being slowly shared out through my networks within the Native community, receiving feedback from people I highly respect. The work has been worth it, to make Native voices a feature of a project at the Clements Library, but I do hope that those who read through this project understand the labor put in by Native people. I want people to find this project intriguing and want to delve more into issues of settler colonialism and its impact on Native people, to want to learn more than just what was able to fit into this exhibit.
—Lindsey Willow Smith
Undergraduate Student, Department of History; Minor in Museum Studies