By Allison Meier
For five decades at the beginning of the 20th century, Horace Poolaw photographed a Kiowa community in flux. In black and white, he captured a rare insider’s view of daily tribal life in Oklahoma from the 1920s to 1960s, when the reservations were receding and modernization was embedding in the new state. For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York showcases over 80 of Poolaw’s photographs, along with his trusty Speed Graphic camera.
Gus Palmer (Kiowa, at left), side gunner, and Horace Poolaw (Kiowa), aerial photographer, in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress. MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, 1944. (© 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw, all images courtesy the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian)
As the Smithsonian explains, Poolaw was born in 1906 “during a time of great change for his people — one year before Oklahoma statehood and six years after the US government approved an allotment policy that ended the reservation period.” From the age of 17, Poolaw took an interest in photography, and during World War II he was an Army aerial photography instructor. He had a knack for portraiture of rural life, whether it was the fluttering movement of the fancy dancers at a powwow or his own stern-faced children in their tiny suits. A 1930 photograph shows a woman in traditional deerskin with a fashionable bob cut curling over her forehead, one of the several to show the mixing of inside and outside influences on Kiowa life.
Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday wrote this on Poolaw’s photography:
Looking at his life’s work, we see that he was the equal of such frontier photographers as Edward Curtis, Charles Lummis, and William Soule; and in his native intelligence (my emphasis) and understanding of the indigenous world, he surpassed them.
The retrospective is accompanied by a monograph from Yale University Press. Poolaw passed away in 1984, but his work remains under the radar, perhaps because it was produced for and about his community. Yet it offers an incredible insight into a time and place of tradition in transition.
For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw continues at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (1 Bowling Green, Financial District, Manhattan) through February 15, 2015.