The Bancroft Library has visual imagery of Native Americans in a wide variety of formats, including framed watercolor and oil paintings, early photographs from anthropological documentation and government surveys, 21st-century photographs from documentary and cultural reclamation projects, and Indigenous community posters. In addition to significant stand-alone collections of Indigenous images, this sort of material is also scattered through the archives of individual photographers and collectors.
In 1867, the U.S. Congress authorized western explorations that focused on geology and natural resources in the lands gained by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the Mexican–American War in 1848. This resulted in the four great surveys of the West: King (1867), Powell (1869), Hayden (1871), and Wheeler (1872). These surveys were conducted under the auspices of the Corps of Engineers, the Department of the Interior, and the War Department. In addition to cataloging natural resources and mapping the new territories, these surveys also recorded the location and population of Indian tribes. The expeditions were extensively visually documented by pioneer photographers such as T. H. O’Sullivan and John K. Hillers, and many images of the Indigenous populations in these territories were captured.
Small-scale surveys, such as those conducted by railroads, also contain photographs of the Indigenous populations.
Lo! [Indians (Paiute?), with two Expedition members]
Image citation: William Ashburner collection of photographs from the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, BANC PIC 1957.027:142--ffALB VAULT, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
Maiman, a Mojave Indian, guide and interpreter during a portion of the season in the Colorado country
Between 1900 and 1930, the photographer Edward Curtis took more than 40,000 negatives in his attempt to document Native American cultures, capturing multitudinous features of Indian life and the surrounding environment. He printed select images as photogravures in a publication that spanned twenty volumes and twenty oversized portfolios between the years 1907 and 1930. The images are accompanied by narrative text describing the customs of eighty tribes, based on the ethnography conducted by Curtis and his assistants in the field.
An Oasis in the Badlands
The Intertribal Friendship House (IFH), founded in 1955, is one of the oldest and still operating "urban Indian centers" in the United States. Its founding was in direct response to the Termination Act, the Relocation Act, and the Employment Opportunity Act, passed by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs during the 1950s. When combined, these acts called for the removal of American Indians living near or on reservations and their relocation to urban areas.
In 1976, the Community History Project, an IFH program, emerged to preserve the history of the broader San Francisco Bay Area "urban Indian" community. While the initial goal of the project was to record oral histories of community members, its focus expanded to include local activities, events, and organizations. This broadened interest is reflected in a collection of posters and other graphic material that promotes various events and other themes pertaining to Native American culture, history, and politics.
An American Tradition: Education poster
The Robert B. Honeyman Jr. Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial Material is composed of more than 2300 items, focused on pictorial interpretations of the Old West. Formats and media within this collection range from original oil paintings (such as the image depicted below) to engraved souvenir spoons. Scattered throughout are various portrayals of Native Americans, including what is considered one of the earliest depictions of Mission Indians (BANC PIC 1963.002:1023--FR) and of San Francisco (BANC PIC 1963.002:1021--FR).
[Two Indians creeping up on a herd of buffalo]
In documenting the languages of Californian Indian tribes, C. Hart Merriam also took copious photographs, mostly of the people and places he encountered in his field work. The images depict individuals, dwellings, artifacts, and related geographic regions. Some Alaskan and other North American Indian images are also present in his collection.
Chuk-chan-sy near Fresno Flat
Michelle Vignes, a documentary photographer and photojournalist, visually captured the American Indian Movement from the 1960s through the 1990s. Two particularly notable subject areas are the 18-month occupation of Alcatraz Island (1969-1971) and the Siege of Wounded Knee (1973). Other images depict subjects ranging from pueblos and reservations of the Southwest to the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, as well as many other parts of North America. Well-represented California subjects include D-Q University, the Native American Health Clinic in San Francisco and Oakland, and Northern California Indian casinos of the 1990s.
Contact sheets of the Alcatraz Occupation
You are on Indian Land exhibition print
In 2006, San Francisco-based photographer Ira Nowinski embarked on an extensive six-year photographic survey of contemporary California Native American groups, emphasizing festivals and other gatherings that demonstrated the preservation of traditional cultures, their revival, or both, throughout the state. By the end of the project, a collection of more than 4,770 photographic prints and 30,000 digital files had been amassed.
Yurok dancers during the Salmon Festival