The Story Behind the Photographs
By Jan McCoy Ebbets
While tourists opened umbrellas and roamed the streets of the historic Plaza of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the two Smith women working on the second floor of the museum of the Institute of American Indian Arts were too focused on the decaying photographs housed in cardboard boxes to notice the drenching rain of a sudden thunderstorm. That was until a lightning bolt flashed nearby, and the museums power shut down. No lights, no computers.
Oh no, muttered Sarah LeVaun Graulty 03 sitting in front of a laptop computer and a scanner. Did I save that image I just scanned? I hope so. She worried because time was crucial as she and three other Praxis interns labored over a unique collection of Native American photographs. Thousands of images remained to be sorted, catalogued and digitally scanned, and the six-week summer internship for the students was almost over.
However, this is just the beginning of what is hoped will be a long-term partnership between Smith College and the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), a four-year college for Native Americans. The immediate goal is to save this extraordinary compilation of pan-tribal images. Then they will be returned to the tribal communities from which they originated.
Some 60 years ago, artist Yeffe Kimball organized a documentary project that over 10 years produced more than 5,500 photographs of Native Americans from throughout North America. Some photographs were obviously posed; others recorded the routines of daily lifea doctors home visit with an infant, a group of Native Americans gathered around a Volkswagen with a teepee tied to its roof, a woman hanging laundry on a clothesline.
Little documentation exists about Yeffe Kimball, the woman who conceived the ideas, or the identity of those who were photographed. All that is known is that Kimball, recognized internationally as a painter, collaborated on the project with Edna Massey, who was a fine arts specialist in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and an assistant to Lee Udall, wife of Secretary of the Interior Morris Udall.
Stored in some 27 cardboard boxes, or pressed in glass casings, the film was losing its color and the images were deteriorating. Weve had this collection since the late 1970s but have not had the staff, funding or suitable archival housing to take proper care of the images. We welcome the help weve received this summer with the Kimball collection, said Chuck Dailey, acting director of the IAIA museum. The experience has been a very good one.
Called the Tribal College Relations Initiative (TCRI), this pilot project was developed at Smith to involve an exchange of resources, both intellectual and applied, between tribal colleges and four-year higher education institutions, using the medium of visual history, said Nancy Marie Mithlo, assistant professor of anthropology at Smith, an adjunct professor of museum studies at the IAIA and a Chiricahua Apache.
During their TCRI internship last summer, Smith interns teamed up with museum staff and faculty, interns from IAIA, and regional Native American artists and historians to catalogue the photo archive and digitize the images. It is hoped that the students studying at IAIA will continue the work through the academic year, and, in summer 2003, new Smith interns will return to Santa Fe to carry on the project.
In addition to Graulty of Massachusetts, this years interns were Jennifer Chen 03 of Virginia, Stephanie Marinone 03 of Connecticut and Sarah Masai 04 of Vermont. Rita Irigan, a museum studies student from IAIA, also worked as an intern on the project.
While their goal was to catalogue, rehouse and digitize 1,000 of the 5,500 images between June 3 and July 12, the students realized that they were aiming too highby the end of the program the group had preserved 500 images. In addition, Graulty and Masai stayed in Santa Fe an extra four days to continue the preservation effort.
This has been a really good learning experience for me on the process of [museum] conservation and preservation, says Chen, a senior majoring in anthropology with a minor in religion. I like the idea of repatriation and the fact that these photographs will someday be returned to their native communities.
The repatriation of visual history is the keystone of the project, Mithlo explains. It offers a meaningful, collaborative endeavor from which positive social relationships between diverse communities can develop. Activities that may spring from this reparations effort include archival training and curriculum development. This resource offers an opportunity for students and faculty to explore such common areas of concern as the ethics of fieldwork and the multiple intersections of historic representations.
As a visual anthropologist, Mithlo regards the TCRI program as one that accomplishes more than preservation. The program also aims to initiate meaningful dialogue between tribal communities throughout the nation, she adds, using the Yeffe Kimball images to spark discussion of cultural arts and education. It also provides a focus for common activities and long-term intellectual dialogue among diverse communities.
One challenge is determining the best museum methods for handling the original images, especially those that appear to represent tribal sacred objects. This is a culturally sensitive issue, notes Mithlo, whose research and teaching interests include the anthropology of museums, the relationship between native and non-native communities and the collection of material culture from indigenous communities. The photos that look as if they may represent a religious ceremony or tribal ritual could be in violation of tribal beliefs or standards [which prohibit photographs]. It boils down to indigenous native ideals versus Western standards of museum curatorship. Are these images part of an artistic project or should they never be exhibited? Its really a frontier area in museum studies.
For more information about TCRI, contact Nancy Marie Mithlo by phone at (413) 585-3683 or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.