Photographer Robert Morrison’s Montana
The artist’s eye for the off-kilter and unusual offers a distinctive portrait of the West at the turn of the 20th century
- By Donna M. Lucey
- Smithsonian.com, October 05, 2009
(Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, MT)
At first glance this photo seems like a cruel joke: sober-faced Native Americans standing beneath the jaunty hand-painted “SAVAGES” sign, each letter created out of a caricatured Indian’s contorted pose. But irony—even a refutation of racial stereotypes—might have been the point. Morrison was both the photographer and the painter of the sign, which advertised a booth in front of the W.E. Savage building on Miles City’s Main Street. The booth was part of a September 1906 town-wide carnival called Y-Tic-Se-Lim. (An Indian name? No, just “Miles City” spelled backward.)
Morrison’s great-grandson, John Hamilton, a retired United States Forest Service archaeologist, says the image was not intended as a put-down, that the photographer enjoyed a relationship of trust and respect with the native people he knew. Morrison married a woman with Assiniboine blood, he traded with Native Americans regularly (his family still has some of the trade items, including tomahawks and rifles) and he sought out encampments to photograph them.
After arriving in Miles City in 1878, Morrison watched as Native Americans mounted a determined, if doomed, insurgency to hang onto their traditional lives on the northern Great Plains. Within five years after their victory at the Little Bighorn in 1876, most of Sitting Bull’s followers had surrendered to troops at Fort Keogh. Their guns confiscated, their ponies sold, they were given farm implements to begin an agrarian life. In June of 1881, their crops half-grown, more than 2,000 Native Americans were gathered and dispatched to a distant Indian agency by government order—even though the fort’s commander, General Nelson A. Miles, reported that they were in a “peaceable, contented and industrious” state.
The local newspaper, the Yellowstone Journal, painted a poignant scene as “the poor, friendless and homeless” Natives departed on steamboats: “A look of moroseness is visible on all their faces at the outrageous manner in which faith has been broken with them.” In this photo, Morrison has captured that same morose quality, but also a stoic dignity. As if he were asking: So who exactly were the “savages”?