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7 Rarely Seen Portraits of the Standing Rock Sioux at the Turn of the Century

Shaunacy Ferro
FRANK BENNETT FISKE, COURTESY TERRA
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The Standing Rock Portraits is the first book of turn-of-the-century photographer Frank Bennett Fiske's photos ever released.

Though he never became nationally famous, early 20th century photographer Frank Bennett Fiske was one of the country’s most prolific portraitists of members the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota. Starting when he took over his mentor’s photography studio in Fort Yates, North Dakota when he was just 16, he spent much of his career documenting Native American life.

Fiske’s rarely seen photos are the subject of a new book, The Standing Rock Portraits. Curated by fellow North Dakotan Murray Lemley, a photographer and graphic designer, the book is filled with dozens of studio portraits Fiske shot of his Sioux neighbors.

1. A Sioux woman in traditional dress

FRANK BENNETT FISKE, COURTESY TERRA

Fiske grew up in Fort Yates, which in the late 19th century was home to both an Army post (where his father worked) and the headquarters of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The people he photographed in his studio, starting in 1899, were his friends and neighbors. Shot with a large studio camera, the photos are dramatic, formal portraits of men, women, and children from the U.S. Standing Rock Indian Agency.

2. A side portrait of an older man

FRANK BENNETT FISKE, COURTESY TERRA

Though he worked closely with his Native neighbors, and spent years researching the history of the Sioux people, Fiske wasn’t free of racial biases: His writings betray significant condescension toward them, and he supported the violent U.S. military intervention deployed to suppressed the Lakota Ghost Dance in 1890, when the Army massacred at least 150 Native American men, women, and children at Wounded Knee. Only a few decades later, in 1917, he wrote that the Sioux were a “good natured people” who were “not at all dissatisfied with their lot in life.” (With shrinking territory, forced assimilation, and a government-imposed school system designed to strip Native children of their cultural identity, his Sioux neighbors might have disagreed with that assessment.)

3. A man in a full headdress

FRANK BENNETT FISKE, COURTESY TERRA

Certainly, his photos display a certain romanticism toward his subjects. In his portraits, Fiske showed Native Americans wearing both contemporary and traditional dress. But the ones Fiske himself was most proud of framed tribesmen as “the noble aborigine of the misty past,” as late historian Frank Vyzralek puts it in the book’s introduction.

4. A portrait of One Bull

FRANK BENNETT FISKE, COURTESY TERRA

Fiske photographed prominent tribe members like One Bull and White Bull, the nephews of famous Lakota leader Sitting Bull.



5. A girl wearing an intricately beaded dress

FRANK BENNETT FISKE, COURTESY TERRA

Fiske also took family portraits and photos of children in his studio.

6. A seated man wearing heavily beaded clothing and holding a rifle

FRANK BENNETT FISKE, COURTESY TERRA

Despite Fiske’s flaws, his images provide an important historical record of the Standing Rock Sioux during a fraught period in the tribe’s history. Fiske’s sharp-focus photos provide details of traditional Sioux dress that can’t be seen in some of the fuzzier images taken by contemporaries like Edward Curtis. Fiske's portraits also show a wider range of dress than other photography of Native American people during the period—in a number of Curtis's photos, for instance, many male subjects are dressed in the same shirt.

7. A woman wearing fur

FRANK BENNETT FISKE, COURTESY TERRA

As photography historian and creator Rod Slemmons writes in his essay in the book, Fiske "clearly had more familiarity with his subjects as people rather than abstract members of a 'vanishing race,' as Curtis sometimes referred to his subjects."

FRANK BENNETT FISKE, COURTESY TERRA

Get the book for $23 on Amazon.

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