Shooting Back: the Life and Work of One Of the Earliest Native American Photographers

In this generously illustrated book, "Crow Indian Photographer: The Work of Richard Throssel," (University of New Mexico Press, 231 pp., $75 cloth, $37.95 paper), Peggy Albright has undertaken a twofold project. In bringing together the intriguing visual record of the Crow people in the early years of attempted acculturation, she has centered on the social position of Richard Throssel, who moved among several cultural worlds.

When Throssel came to live among the Crow Indian people in 1902, he brought with him an artistic interest nurtured throughout childhood. Of Canadian Cree as well as Scottish and English heritage, the 20-year old Throssel was adopted by the Crows, living in Crow Agency, a southeastern Montana settlement.

He took up work as a clerk in the Indian Service office, where he encountered the art of two cultures: the distinctive beadwork of the Crows, and images made by Anglo artists who had come west to document what they called a vanishing race.

What one resident dubbed "a stampede of photographers" arrived at the Crow Reservation during Throssel's tenure. Among them was famed photographer Edward S. Curtis, who visited twice while creating his 20-volume work, "The North American Indian."

Although he studied photography before Curtis arrived, Throssel was swayed by the dramatic lighting and sentimental style with which Curtis represented native Americans.

Throssel willingly made nostalgic and clichd images that were very popular with non-Indians. But as Albright points out, there is reason to believe that Throssel and his photographic subjects took these photographic performances as sarcastic comments on the taste of non-Indian audiences. Stereotypical images formed the bulk of a portfolio called "Western Classics From the Land of the Indian," produced by Throssel and mail-ordered to customers around the world from a business he set up in Billings, Mont.

The 39 photographs in the series are still famous in the American West, though they represent only 4 percent of his work.

In less than a decade, Throssel built a personal collection of nearly 1,000 photographs, including 180 portraits of Crow people, 99 portraits of other American Indians, 186 tipi scenes, 63 Crow sacred and secular ceremonial images, and 352 images of daily life among the Crows of Montana. Albright has chosen to emphasize the range and technical expertise of these seldom-seen photographs.

Throssel's sense of his Indian heritage and identity was sharpened in 1916, when he and many others, were forced to accept citizenship as part of an effort to assimilate native peoples. He began publicly commenting on the inequities of federal Indian policy and was twice elected Yellowstone County's representative to the Montana Legislature.

Albright raises tough questions. How did Throssel shift cultural identity? Did he realize that his pictures could have contradictory interpretations for different audiences?

For example, a photograph showing the Crow people lining up for communally purchased rations was wrongly interpreted outside the Crow community to mean that the Crow were waiting for government hand outs. Did Throssel break any cultural bans when he photographed sacred native American ceremonies and then sold the images?

As Albright makes clear, who gets looked at and who gets to look has been risky business for a long time.

* Mary Warner Marien lives in LaFayette, N.Y. Her book "Photography and Its Critics" was reviewed in the Monitor on Wednesday, July 23.

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