The history of Native Americans is not an easy one to discuss. As beautiful and rich as their culture is, there is no denying that it was slowly destroyed at the hands of white settlers. Oftentimes, it’s easy for us to forget about the history that brought us to where we are today, as the old, black-and-white images feel distant and unreal.
We’ve already seen the impact that color can have on historical photographs, and the same can be said for these photographs of Native Americans. Dating anywhere between the late 1800s and early 1900s, these photos capture what life was like for Native Americans. Their clothing, their culture, and their emotions all become more real thanks to those who took the time to hand-color these stunning photographs.
The bulk of these images were brought into the public eye by a filmmaker named Paul Ratner. He was researching Native Americans for his film called Moses on the Mesa and was surprised to find that many of the photos were in color. Check out the 16 photographs below for a rare look back at the culture of these Native Americans.
Lots old photographs of Native Americans are actually in color. Paul Rather came across many while doing research for his film, Moses on the Mesa. This often involved coloring by hand, resulting in a beautiful hybrid between a painting and a photograph.
This one, which was taken sometime between the 1870s and 1880s, captures the portrait of the Ute Chief Ignacio.
Here, we are offered a glimpse into one family’s daily life. Their names were Onesta, Nitana, and Yellow Mink, and they belonged to the Siksika nation in Alberta, Canada.
As Native American culture grew more popular, it became common for photographers to hire Native Americans to pose for photographs.
That isn’t to say the fact that they were staged makes them any less real. These were still real Native Americans, dealing with a massive destruction of their land and culture. As beautiful as photographs are, they can only capture so much …
This photo was taken from a glass lantern slide, a technology that would later become the projector slide.
While we are fortunate to have such a unique view of the past, it’s hard not to get emotional thinking about all of the pain and suffering the Native Americans went through.
“It felt inconceivable that anyone would want to exterminate them from this continent as a conscious policy stretching over hundreds of years,” said Ratner. “It just seemed so barbaric and inhumane.”
While we can’t change history, we can still use these photos as a way of honoring the Native Americans’ rich, vibrant culture.
Si Wa Wata Wa, a Zuni elder, taken in 1903.
Can you believe this was taken in 1898? His name was Bartelda, and he belonged to the Apache nation.
Also taken in 1898 was this portrait of a Cheyenne Chief named Wolf Robe. The colorization allows us to see every gorgeous detail of his clothing and jewelry.
Each one of these individuals lived a life full of incredible experiences, some more intense than others. For example, this woman came to be called “Mrs. Bad Gun” after avenging her husband’s death.
Of course, coloring these photographs is no easy feat. Ratner views it as its own art form and a way for us to connect with the past.
“Many of the colorized photos exhibit true talent, which preserved for us the truer likeness of the people many a hundred years ago thought were vanishing,” explains Ratner.
By bringing their history and culture out of black-and-white and into color, these photos beg for Native Americans to be seen and heard in the present day.
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