"Peoples of the Plateau: The Indian Photographs of Lee Moorhouse, 1898-1915" opens Jan. 26 at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture...

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History is a river, and every time we try to capture a bit, its shape conforms to the container we put it in. How to find truth in something so fluid and elusive?

The photographs shot by Maj. Lee Moorhouse at the turn of the 20th century — and the stories that surround them — are a case in point. When a traveling exhibition called “Peoples of the Plateau: The Indian Photographs of Lee Moorhouse, 1898-1915” opens Jan. 26 at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, we’ll be faced with a puzzle. Moorhouse captured nearly 9,000 scenes on glass negatives over the years. The show, organized by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma, presents 51 of them. A hundred years later, from a broader perspective, what can these images tell us?

Beginning in 1898, Moorhouse served two years as the government agent overseeing the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Two months into the job, he reported effusively: “These Indians . . . will in a few years be eminently fitted to take their place by the side of their white brothers, and with measured tread march on in the great hosts of advancing civilization.”

Wow. Obviously Moorhouse was telling his superiors what they wanted to hear. Was he trying to glorify himself? Or could he have been creating a deliberately rosy picture to protect people on the reservation from unwanted scrutiny and regulations?

We know that another observer took a less sanguine view of affairs on the reservation. U.S. Indian inspector Benjamin Miller visited under Moorhouse’s watch and was not impressed: “These Indians spend a good deal of their time in horse racing, with a good deal of gambling and betting in connection with it.” He disapproved strongly of the dances and celebrations in Native garb and other such “barbarous practices,” and he urged Moorhouse to crack down.

Needless to say, the Indians in question weren’t happy about attempts to wipe out their culture. Horror stories abound about children being snatched away from their families and abusively treated at boarding schools. In fact, two staff members at the Umatilla Indian School were fired during Moorhouse’s tenure with the agency, one for charges that included drunkenness and profanity, the other for physically brutalizing students.

For his part, Moorhouse saw himself as a great friend of the Columbia River Plateau Indians. In a published essay he asserted that “Years of close friendship, association and confidence are necessary to secure photographs from the Western Indian tribes. They are extremely superstitious and strangers may spend weeks before getting a picture worth developing.”

True?

Well, yes and no, says curator Steven Grafe of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and author of the informative catalog that accompanies the exhibition.

“On one hand, Moorhouse was trying to scare off competitors,” Grafe said. Like photographer Edward Curtis, Moorhouse was eager to cash in on the market for exotic photographs of what many assumed was a “dying breed.” Moorhouse, too, kept a studio stocked with clothing and props to make his pictures more “artistic.” Outfitting subjects was common practice at the time, and Grafe says it’s fairly easy to sort out by the repeated appearances of certain clothing in Moorhouse’s studio shots, which props belonged to the photographer.

“On the other hand, Chief Joseph sat for him twice, so there was something going on,” Grafe said of Moorhouse’s claims of inside status with tribal members. Contrast that with Curtis, who had a notoriously difficult relationship with Chief Joseph. Grafe says in general, despite paternal and colonial overtones, Moorhouse did seem to have a pretty good reputation with people in the community.

Still, not all Moorhouse’s subjects were happy about being photographed. One Umatilla mother told Moorhouse her little daughter had died after he took her picture and that his camera was “bad medicine.” He was not allowed back. Moorhouse also is known to have taken pictures without permission and for setting up attractive women in cheescakey poses with bare breasts (you won’t find these in the exhibition or book). What was his motivation?

“Word on the street among some Indian women was that a white man’s camera could see through your clothes,” Grafe said. “There were some women who were clearly extremely uncomfortable with it. There are serious gender issues that we contemporary people aren’t conscious of between men and women across cultures because, by and large, male anthropologists talk to male informants, so you get a very skewed picture of women’s life.”

Doesn’t matter what Moorhouse was trying to do, Grafe says, the practice is disturbing, especially given the power differential between subject and photographer.

At the same time, you do have to give Moorhouse credit for one simple courtesy that Curtis and other photographers of the era often didn’t bother with. In many cases, he noted the names of the individuals he photographed. At the time, that was progressive. These were not just types to Moorhouse, they were people he knew. He also identified place names, noting which family’s camp it was and where it was. Because of that, today, three elders of the Motanic clan — Caroline Motanic Davis, Jo Motanic Lewis and Betty McLean — can point to a Moorhouse photograph and say with certainty: “This is my mother; this is my father.”

“We appreciate record-keeping,” says Roberta Conner, director of the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute in Pendleton, Ore., which hosted the exhibition “People of the Plateau” recently and has many Moorhouse images on permanent display. People value the pictures for the important historical information they contain, about the land, the culture, individuals, and the encroachment of technology.

Yet Conner makes it clear that tribal members take the photographs with a grain of salt.

“Moorhouse was exploitive,” she said. “He had some sense of economic success. He knew he was not the only one documenting the ‘vanishing race.’ ” But in the end, she added, “It doesn’t matter how silly Moorhouse dressed some people. That we have a picture of these people is phenomenal. These are our people. They aren’t faceless; they aren’t nameless . . . From our perspective, tribal history is long. We use the photos to illustrate one point in time on this vast continuum that is Indian history.”

That much is certain.

Sheila Farr is The Seattle Times art critic.