This study examines photographs of early manikins representing
Plains Indians in the Smithsonian Institution during the 1870s.
The kinds of research required and the types of information that
can be retrieved from historical photographs will be exemplified
through the analysis of these images.
A photograph of a manikin was selected for use in volume 13
of the Handbook of North American
Indians: Plains (2001) because it seemed to be a
very early museum representation of a Plains Indian. It
appeared to be half of a stereograph because of the rounded
top of the image and to have been taken at the Smithsonian Institution
Castle, due to the unique sandstone in the background of the
photograph. Comparative research brought to light three
other related prints, which initiated further investigation
as to whom the Plains Indian manikin in the photograph represented.
Use of Historical Photographs
Historical photographs relating to American Indians are primary
documents. They cannot be taken at face value, however,
but require comparative analysis supported by ethnohistorical
research. Fundamental questions must be asked in considering
a photograph as a historical artifact:
visual documents without first answering these fundamental questions
relegates them to the realm of generic Indian stereotypes.
Only after these fundamental questions have been answered can
responsible use be made of an image for research or publication.
An image that preserves the earliest manikin representing a Plains
Indian in the Smithsonian Institution will be discussed as an
example of the kinds of research required and the types of information
that can be retrieved from historical photographs. This example
reveals the politics of Plains Indian representation during the
1870s and serves to identify museum artifacts that had lost their
provenance over the course of more than a century.
What are they?
- What kind of image is it?
- When was it made?
- Who made it?
- Where was it made?
- How was it used?
- Who was the audience?
The term manikin or mannequin refers to four types of human imagery:
1) An early dress form
or tailor's dummy, which dates back to Ancient Egyptian's times;
such forms were found in King Tutankhamen's tomb
2) The fashion doll
3) A lay figure or artist's
4) A wax portraiture,
sculpture, or effigy (the Plains Indian Chief manikin under
discussion falls into this category)
viewed individually provide specific information about the ideal
racial type of a period and, in this case, insight into how
Plains Indians, in particular Sioux men, were perceived during
this time. It is questionable whether, by using a face
mask for a manikin or sculpting it from a photo of a real individual,
museum exhibitors intended to represent an individual or simply
a racial type. The fact that the clothing, ornaments, and handicrafts
used on the manikin were never owned by the named individual
or were even of the same tribal group leads one to believe that
no real personal association was attempted. While accuracy
in depicting a cultural type was no doubt desired, it would
appear that popular appeal was more important than representing
a particular individual.