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Photographer Captured Changing Lives of His People

21/04/2017

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  • For more than 50 years, photographer Horace Poolaw captured the lives of members of his American Indian tribe.
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  • Now, The National Museum of the American Indian is showing the American Indian photographer’s rare work.
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  • The exhibit is called “For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw.”
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  • Poolaw’s photos show the cultural assimilation that was taking place in American Indian communities during his lifetime.
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  • Poolaw was a member of the Kiowa tribe.
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  • He took pictures of American Indian subjects.
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  • He used pictures to form a history of his friends, family and events important to them.
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  • Linda Poolaw is his daughter from his second marriage.
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  • One of the 80 photos in the exhibit, she said, is of her and her older brother, Robert coming home from school.
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  • “He put cowboy hats on our heads and gave us pistols to hold,” Linda remembers.
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  • Whether the photo was meant to be ironic or not, Linda is not sure.
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  • All she knows is that she never much cared for it.
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  • “No, it’s not because of the ‘cowboyness’ of it or the whiteness or racism or anything like that,” she said.
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  • “It’s just that Dad made us pose for him all the time.
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  • We had to be still.
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  • We had to wait for him to get the shot just right when all we wanted to do was go play.”
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  • Horace Poolaw was born in 1906 in Mountain View, Oklahoma.
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  • Until the late 19th Century, Oklahoma’s Indian Territory belonged to tribes native to the area or that had been sent there from other parts of the country.
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  • Poolaw’s tribe is called the Kiowa Comanche.
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  • They lived with the Apache tribe on a reservation that covered 1.2 million hectares of land.
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  • But 20 years later, a law known as the Dawes Act permitted Congress to divide the land.
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  • Individual Indians were given their own land.
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  • The rest was opened up to non-Native settlers.
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  • Horace Poolaw lived with his parents in a traditional tipi early in life.
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  • His father, Kiowa George, was the son of a warrior.
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  • Poolaw’s mother was descended from a Mexican woman who had been captured during a Kiowa raid.
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  • They moved into a house that still remains with the family today.
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  • Then, settlers from the east came to live in Mountain View.
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  • Photographer George W. Long moved there and became a mentor to Poolaw.
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  • He gave the young man his first camera.
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  • Poolaw’s photos captured images of Kiowa women wearing traditional American Indian clothes and Kiowas in cars with headdresses.
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  • But he had very little money to make photographs.
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  • “He developed his own pictures, even though there was no electricity or water in the house back in those days,” said his daughter Linda.
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  • “He had to send to Chicago for film and developing supplies.”
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  • The high cost of photographic paper and film meant that Poolaw worked hard to get his pictures right on the first try.
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  • He developed only a small number of the photographs he took.
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  • And he took all of his photographs outdoors so he would not need lighting equipment.
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  • “We were poor, dirt poor,” said Linda.
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  • “But we didn’t know it because everybody around us was poor too.”
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  • Today, those postcards sell for as much as $50 on the internet.
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  • Poolaw continued taking pictures until the 1970s when his eyesight began to fail.
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  • In 1979, the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko organized an exhibit of his photographs.
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  • It would be the only showing of his work during his lifetime.
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  • In the late 1980s, Poolaw’s daughter Linda established a research program at Stanford University to archive and digitize her father’s work.
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  • When her father died in 1984, he left behind 2,000 photographic negatives.
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  • Today, art historians and critics consider Poolaw’s work equal to many better-known photographers working in the western United States in the early 20th Century.
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  • His photographs are often described as documenting the change from traditional to mainstream ways of life for American Indians.
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  • I’m Dorothy Gundy. And I'm Marsha James.
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