Early photographers wanted their Indians to be happy noble savages and often provided the props - head-dresses and war paint that had not been used in years. A haunting new exhibition redresses the balance by presenting these iconic images as never before

THIRTY YEARS ago I was attempting to return from Flagstaff to Berkeley for the start of a new semester. I'd done the Grand Canyon at sunset, where a group of Hopi dancers in bedraggled feathers performed on the edge of the ravine to entertain tourists with all the enthusiasm of a weary stripper. The Greyhound bus station turned out, unexpectedly, to be closed, and I went into a local gas station to paint a hitch-hiker's sign, knowing I had to be in class the following morning.

Gradually I became aware of being watched. Two of the Hopi dancers, now in western clothes, were shaking their heads as they observed my sign- writing. "Don't travel tonight. It's not safe to hitch a ride in this country." They correctly assumed I was foreign, but reckoned without the arrogance of so seasoned and naive a traveller. "Don't trust white Americans, don't travel tonight," they kept urging. It sounded melodramatic but they were right. Of all the continents I'd hitched in, North America was to prove by far the most dangerous, with every nutter out to prove Easy Rider right. So I didn't travel on that night, but spent it sitting out with the two Hopi on a hillside, while they drank their hooch and explained the stars and their ancestors to me, and their kinship with the grass and the stones, and the tales and legends their grandmothers had told them.

As an extremely green history major, it was the first time I had come across a belief-system in which history and mythology are identical. There was no differentiation between their presentation of origins - descending from the great Creator to one's proper place in a given corner of the world - and the account of massacres committed within family memory, or even of daily life in that most retrograde and degraded of inventions, the Indian reservation.

The Hopi, like the Zuni, were supposed to have been a peaceable lot, largely because they happened to inhabit desert lands the settlers didn't much want in any case. Part of the Hopi leadership were also, conveniently, Mormon - which might be why sacred dances no longer commanded the respect and secrecy they were intended to. As I watched the dancers, postcard sellers were doing a brisk trade in garish variants of "tribal dancers". At approximately the same time, Encounter was reporting the observations of the anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers: "The place of the noble savage is on a pedestal rather than in the market-place where his nobility is soon brought into question, and the less the figure on the pedestal resembles the reality of everyday life, the more convincing his message. Tribute to the pristine forebears must not be permitted to interfere with treatment of their descendants ... the Indian can only be acclaimed at the level where he does not exist."

There are a great many non-existent Indians in this extraordinary exhibition of over 500 images, most of them portraits covering the last century. They come in photogravures, silver and albumen prints, sepia-toned and carbon-washed, in cartoon or contact strips, stereo- or bioscopes. Many are catalogued under anthropology, ethnology or sociology and belong to relevant institutes and university departments in the United States; others turned up unexpectedly in England, at the Pitt-Rivers museum, Oxford, the Guildhall, Corporation of London, and in the Wellcome Institute (which has never displayed them in public before).These could be written on the captions alone, mostly written long ago, and often revealing more of the photographers' backgrounds than the subjects'. Here, captioned beneath silhouetted figures, we have "Chiefs of the Desert" and "Ghost Dancers" (who were, in fact, invoking a spirit of renewal in future generations).

But no misnomers can disguise the shocking reality of these photographs. Indeed, it is the disguises themselves which compose that reality. A twin portrait from the Hamilton and Kodylek studio in 1880 shows two versions of the same woman, seated against the same outdoor backdrop: first, a bare-breasted Eve staring provocatively; then, a demure Madonna, clothed in a European blouse, eyes downcast. Even more distressing are the "before and after" pictures - of the Dakota leader Sha-Kpe dressed for the studio to celebrate the 1857 Washington Delegation, and then in jail, hair cropped under a dirty bandanna, awaiting execution. In the week Abraham Lincoln signed his Proclamation of Emancipation, there was the largest judicial execution in US history, of 38 Dakota men who had participated in the 1862 Sioux Revolt.

Then there is the mission boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where only four months separate group shots of the same children: they arrive from 16 distinct cultures, but soon merge together, uniformed from their clipped fringes to their shod feet. There's sadness that no attempt was made to transliterate their indigenous names (they were given new ones). But little is as sad as the incongruous setting at Fort Marion, where native prisoners are photographed in pyjamas, like concentration camp inmates. They are unnamed, but a caption reads "Tropical Scenery - Views by the Florida Club".

What is so striking about this early work of objectifying, categorising and ultimately iconising native Americans is how wrong it was. That the basis of their treatment was politically and morally wrong goes without saying, but it was also wrong in the new documentarists' own terms. The notion that science was objective, and that the new disciplines of anthropology and photography were scientifically sound, are belied by their practitioners' inability to believe what they saw. The most salient factor in this exhibition, which includes books, early film footage and case-notes, is that believing is seeing. Whites, who would have been astounded by the idea that Europe was a homogeneous whole, that Greeks and Greenlanders might have anything much in common, repeatedly failed to recognise the diversity in what are now the 556 registered Amerindian nations (with another 200 still seeking recognition). This permitted travelling photographers to supply their subjects with invented names, or with costumes displaying tags from the Smithsonian Institute collection.

Long before John Wayne rode through a swathe of "redskin" corpses to prove that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian", there was the the political injunction to "kill the Indian to save the man". Carlisle School and the Fort Marion prison are as much a testament to this as the Sioux massacre by US forces at Wounded Knee in 1890, or the Trail of Tears (the forced marches of the 1830s in which the Cherokees lost a quarter of their nation). But there was always another version of the Indian, celebrated in such ballads as Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha", in which "the noble Hiawatha" went off into the sunset after a long and glorious life as "the Beloved": a romantic fantasy woven around a misappropriation of the "two-legged, four-legged and winged" friends of Indian tales and ancient rock-paintings.

For many pioneer writers and artists, being in the New World was also to be at one with the timeless worlds of the free-spirited. Aesthetic exploration accompanied the "exploration" of a land seemingly and seamlessly without frontiers, until the West was won. While victory destroyed the basis of this assumed freedom, the Indians were left as guardians of its mythic status. On the one hand, they were perceived as synchronistic with nature, but, on the other, they were still the "dirty injun". Photography's task to "capture eternity in an instant" was continuously sabotaged by its desire to idealise.

In On Photography Susan Sontag wrote: "To photograph is to confer importance. There is probably no subject that cannot be beautified." Edward S Curtis, probably the best-known photographer of Indians, perpetuated the stereotype of the Indian brave - courageous in battle, dignified in frequent defeat. The ignorance that Curtis permitted himself of Indian customs and languages was accompanied by the routine elevation of the unknown as the mysterious.

Yet Curtis - 60 of whose photogravures are on show at the Barbican, with a separate exhibition of his work at the Atlas Studio Gallery - would claim to have been a devoted lover of "the Indian", a creature he viewed as mythical as the centaur, and which he exalted in imagery reiterating the skilled union of horse and rider, man and nature. Believing he was called upon to document a "Vanishing Race", Curtis began in 1896 to record what little he believed was left of an undifferentiated free-riding, free-roaming people. Thirty years later he had compiled 40,000 negatives and 20 volumes of images, "enduring every imaginable risk and hardship" in the process. Wedded to the wilderness, he lost his marriage, his health and his money before dying alone and bank- rupt, himself the epitome of a lone romantic. Lone romanticism, of course, is a western construct - Indian societies are largely based on communality rather than individuality.

Curtis belongs to a tradition that originated in Victorian England, known as Pictorialism, which claimed photography was more than a science. Representation was not about a real but an ideal world. Curtis is known to have persuaded westernised Comanche and Sioux to don garments and head-dresses they had not worn in years for the benefit of his camera, and to have retouched his prints to excise such objects as clocks and lamps.

The history of the American Indian has so long been the tale told by the white about the redskin, by the victor about his victim, so it is refreshing to see, in Native Nations, natives presenting themselves as well as being represented. There exists a rich abundance of native American photographers, some as early as Richard Throssel (1882- 1933) and Horace Poolaw (1906-1984). Throssel, who learnt from Curtis, made his personal work on the Crow Reservation from 1902-1911 and was also a commercial photographer. Poolaw dedicated 50 years to documenting the Kiowa community, including his own family. The sardonic nature of the smiles on the faces of the Kiowa Group in the American Indian Exposition Parade (1941) is inescapable. Two other native American photographers, Larry McNeil and Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, digitally manipulate early versions of "the Indian" into contemporary settings and commentaries. The latter's collage of "Damned Series", in the words of the author Theresa Hartan, "brings a full force of life and voice to early photographs".

Tsinhnahjinnie works with 19th- and 20th-century portraits, extracting irony and humour in seemingly self-explanatory photographs through her use of captions. These captions effectively send up the white versions of redskin reality, turning the victims into victors after all.

! 'Native Nations: Journeys in American Photo- graphy' is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London EC1, from 10 September to 13 December. 'The Shadow Catcher - Edward S Curtis' is at Atlas Studio Gallery, 55-57 Tabernacle Street, London EC2, from 1 October to 25 November

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