Growing up, I always thought myself to be a huge history buff. Whether it was reading history books or looking at old photographs, I felt there was so much we could learn by looking back at the past. What fascinated me the most about history? The ability for people and cultures to significantly change over the course of the time. And there’s no better (or more tragic) example of that than the Native American people.
Paul Ratner is a filmmaker that came across a collection of both color and colorized photographs depicting Native American people all across North America in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. Although the photographs were originally black and white, some of the photographs were painted on or adjusted with Kodachrome, a color processing technique, in order to bring the photographs to life.
Although these photographs bring to light the stunning Native American people back in the day, it’s important to know that during this time Native Americans were losing their way of life. Thankfully, we have these photographs to celebrate their rich history.
Paul Ratner was conducting research for his film Moses on the Mesa when he came across these old color photographs of Native Americans.
The photographs, like this one from 1908 of a man named Ringing Bell, were originally black and white photographs that had color added to them by hand.
Although some may say that hand-coloring ruins the integrity of the photograph, I think it brings the photograph to life and helps create an even more accurate portrayal. Take for instance this photograph of Ute Chief Ignacio, taken around the 1870s.
Although a significant portion of the photographs are portraits, some of the photographs were quick snapshots that depicted the everyday life of Native Americans. In the following photograph, you’ll see Onetsa, Nitana, and their daughter Yellow Mink. They are a family that were part of the Siksika nation in southern Alberta, Canada, around the early 1900s.
The reason why so many photographs depicting Native Americans exist? Colonists living in the East were fascinated by the culture of Native Americans, which they considered exotic. Because of this, photographs eagerly traveled west in order to capture stunning scenes of Native Americans and their way of life.
Unfortunately, there’s a deeper, more nefarious meanings to these photographs. During the time these photographs were taken, the Native American people were facing severe discrimination and oppression. It made the lives of Native American leaders, such as Chief Hollow Horn Bear of the Sicangu Lakota, a whole lot more difficult.
What made the Native American people so special was that each tribe had their own unique clothing, customs, and way of life.
Paul Ratner’s film Moses on the Mesa depicts the oftentimes contentious relationship between Native Americans and white settlers. To Paul, these photographs were a stark reminder of that.
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