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Project Background

This study examines photographs of early manikins representing Plains Indians in the Smithsonian Institution during the 1870s. The kinds of research required and the types of information that can be retrieved from historical photographs will be exemplified through the analysis of these images.

A photograph of a manikin was selected for use in volume 13 of the Handbook of North American Indians: Plains (2001) because it seemed to be a very early museum representation of a Plains Indian. It appeared to be half of a stereograph because of the rounded top of the image and to have been taken at the Smithsonian Institution Castle, due to the unique sandstone in the background of the photograph. Comparative research brought to light three other related prints, which initiated further investigation as to whom the Plains Indian manikin in the photograph represented.

The Use of Historical Photographs

Historical photographs relating to American Indians are primary documents. They cannot be taken at face value, however, but require comparative analysis supported by ethnohistorical research. Fundamental questions must be asked in considering a photograph as a historical artifact:

  • What kind of image is it?
  • When was it made?
  • Who made it?
  • Where was it made?
  • How was it used?
  • Who was the audience?

To use visual documents without first answering these fundamental questions relegates them to the realm of generic Indian stereotypes. Only after these fundamental questions have been answered can responsible use be made of an image for research or publication. An image that preserves the earliest manikin representing a Plains Indian in the Smithsonian Institution will be discussed as an example of the kinds of research required and the types of information that can be retrieved from historical photographs. This example reveals the politics of Plains Indian representation during the 1870s and serves to identify museum artifacts that had lost their provenance over the course of more than a century.

Uncle's shirt, front
Uncle's shirt, front.
See larger image of the front of Uncle's shirt
Red Cloud manikin
Red Cloud's manikin.
See larger image of Red Cloud's manikin.
Uncle's shirt, back
Uncle's shirt, back.
See larger image of the back of Uncle's shirt

The following material cannot be cited without permission of Scherer ©. Please see the acknowledgments for more details.

This project was published in the following sources accompanied by extensive endnotes and a bibliography:

2014 Artifact identification using Historical Photographs: The Case of Red Cloud’s Manikin. Visual Anthropology 27(3):217-247. Artifacts published in color. For endnotes and expanded bibliography see:

2005 “Red Cloud’s Manikin and His Uncle’s Shirt: Historical Representation in the Museum as seen through Photo Analysis.” In The People of the Buffalo, vol. 2, pp. 88-103. The Plains Indians of North America. Essays in honor of John C. Ewers. Eds. Colin Taylor and Hugh Dempsey, Tatanka Press, Wyk auf Foehr, Germany. Artifacts published in black and white.

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