By Andrea L. Ferber, PhD
In 1947 the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) purchased 44 sketches by 19th-century German-American artist Charles Ferdinand Wimar, as well as 31 photographs, from St. Louis resident Claire Becker. Six of the photographs, portraits of Diné individuals, are especially rare. The photographer was Valentin Wolfenstein, a Swedish-American who visited Bosque Redondo Reservation. The US Army imprisoned approximately 10,000 Diné and Apache people at this camp in New Mexico between 1863 and 1868.
Settler-colonial photographers visiting Bosque Redondo typically posed their subjects against painted backdrops and often with an ornately carved wooden chair: tropes that had become standard in European portraiture. However, at the time, the Diné were struggling to survive at a temporary camp without adequate shelter, food, and provisions. Almost no photographs exist of these very real conditions.
Wolfenstein immigrated to the East Coast during the Civil War and learned photography in Massachusetts after fighting for the Union. Later he established a studio in Los Angeles and traveled in Mexico and the Southwestern United States to take photographs for the open market. SLAM’s prints are particularly important because the individuals are identified. Further, clothing from this particular time reflects how Indigenous people adapted settler-colonial cultures.
Barboncito (Hastiin Dághaa’ [Man with the Whiskers], 1820–1871) was a Diné civic and spiritual leader. Manuelito (Hastiin Chiil Haajiní [Man of Black Plants Place] or Ashkii Diyinii [Holy Boy], 1818–1893) was one of the most important Diné leaders of the 19th century. His wife Juanita (Asdzáá Tl’ógí [Weaver Woman], 1845–1910) was a respected orator and diplomat. Barboncito and Manuelito fiercely resisted white encroachment of their homeland. These photos were taken the year both men signed the Treaty of Bosque Redondo (1868), which finally permitted them to return home.
In his portrait, Barboncito wears a combination of Diné clothing (beaded necklace, bandana, buckskin leggings, moccasins) and settler-colonial clothing (cotton shirt, buttoned pants). The long rifle is a sign he is a warrior, though, as a prisoner of war at the time, it was likely given to him only for the photograph. Until their forced relocation and imprisonment, the Diné were the strongest political and military power in their region.
Manuelito poses with Juanita and a son. He holds arrows for the same reason Barboncito was given a gun, and he wears the same style of clothing. Juanita wears a biil (woven dress) cinched with a belt, silver bracelets, a beaded necklace, and buckskin-wrapped moccasins. Another photograph shows she was the only woman in the Diné delegation that went to Washington, DC, in 1874.
Wolfenstein printed these images on demand for the tourist industry. While he did not endeavor to create an encyclopedic database like Edward Curtis (who was born the year these photos were taken), and he may not have manipulated his subjects’ appearance (as Curtis did), the stiff studio poses do not reflect the harsh conditions at Bosque Redondo. Rather, they portray the individuals as historical relics.
As Diné scholar Jennifer Nez Denetdale explains, “These images reinforce reductionist representations while masking the unimaginable historical traumas Navajos have survived.”1 At the same time, the formality of the photographs indicated to white audiences the sitters’ high rank as diplomats. Though problematic (and quite faded), the photos remain valuable as portraits of known individuals and as glimpses into the reservation era.
- Jennifer Nez Denetdale, Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007), 88.
Click on images to enlarge.
Images courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum. Used with permission.