With this exhibition, we hope to preserve and honor memories of Baltimore’s American Indian community as it once was by showcasing our people on the scene, in the fullness of our humanity, with our many complexities. We are not a monolith and never have been. Still, there are commonalities among us. Most of us have roots in a particular place and it shows. We are southern. We are strong. We are mean. We are resourceful. We have a sense of humor about life. We have style. We find safety and refuge in the company of our kin — and sometimes trouble, too.
This selection of portraits is not exhaustive. Literally thousands of Indians lived on Baltimore’s “reservation” in its heyday, which roughly spans the early 1950s through the early 1970s. Even many prominent members of our community are not featured here. Rather, images were sourced from a given set of archival collections and are intended to be representative of a much larger, diverse body. We invite the public to notice how folks chose to be photographed and what the media chose to publish about us at different times during this period of our history in the city.
The web format presents interesting creative constraints. For optimal loading speed, we had to organize our exhibition into categories. We chose: Family, Work, Social Life, Heritage, and Education. Yet, even as we sorted through our selections and made assignments, we realized how many of these categories overlap, and how a single image might easily fit within any of the groupings. To maintain a clean look and a balance between images and text, our space for intervention within the website design was limited to titles and brief captions. In many cases, we chose to keep the original captions of those photos which had appeared in periodicals, adding only tribal affiliations and names. We made the aesthetic decision not to remove crop marks leftover from editing rooms, or to clean up photos that have lived entire lives in the context of community before making their way to this online space.
We chose to include photos through the 1990s — though this was after Baltimore’s true “reservation” era — because there was still some semblance of a physical community. Please know that there could also have been photos from the 2000s, from the 2010s, and even from today because we are still around. We’re just scattered now. We’ll be here tomorrow, too.
In many ways, photography is a fundamentally Native American art form that resonates with some of our core sensibilities and reflects the way we see the world. It offers a window into the past that reveals our roots. It builds bridges between descendant communities and their ancestors. It collapses time and space, bringing us closer to those who came before us. In all of these ways, it serves the same purpose our historic art and stories have for countless generations.
This online exhibition, Safety in Numbers, utilizes images from archives and family photo albums to show Baltimore’s Native community during its heyday and give us access to an overlooked history. It uncovers the history of the Native community’s vital presence in Baltimore, which peaked in the mid-20th century and endures until this day. The project aims to rectify the fact that many places in the city were at one time definably Native, but that history is no longer visible or recognized in public memory. This project humanizes Native history and tells the story of the Native community’s role in the development of modern-day Baltimore. This dramatically departs from so much of Native history, which is written in a historicizing mode that erases modern day Natives and renders urban Native populations invisible. According to popular representation, the Native is not a person who lives but, rather, a friendly peaceful neighbor that fed your ancestors turkey, or an artifact of the violence of western expansion. In history books, Natives vanished into the slivers of wilderness afforded them or walked off to remote reservations somewhere out west. But in reality, Native Americans have been a vital force in our city and the snapshots in this exhibition capture that truth.
As I look at all the photographs featured here, I can’t help but think of the Native photographers who paved the way for this project. Jennie Ross Cobb, a Cherokee woman who lived from 1882 – 1958 who is recognized as the first popular Native American female photographer, used a box camera to take snapshots of her community during a critical moment of change. Her work allows modern audiences to see the lives of her Cherokee community members in Indian country before Oklahoma became a state. Likewise, the photography of Horace Poolaw (1906 – 1984) reveals his Kiowa community in a key moment of transition as the reservation era came to a close and land allotment took its place. Born in the heart of Kiowa country, he worked for around 50 years to show his community as it truly lived. The images he captured showed community members wearing American army attire along with traditional headdresses, and women riding on top of cars in American Indian Exposition parades. All such images place Native peoples in the contemporary moment and fight against the flattening and stereotypical images promoted by white photographers like Edward Curtis. Stamping his photos with “A Poolaw Photo, Pictures by an Indian, Horace M. Poolaw, Anadarko, Okla,” Poolaw told the viewers that his photos were coming from an insider Native perspective. A good number of works in this exhibition also come from a Native point of view.
Like the images captured by storied Native American photographers, the photographs in this exhibition center both Native families and community. They capture daily routines alongside traditions that endured in the face of displacement and erasure. These photos assert the agency and humanity of Native Americans in equal measure. They challenge the popular and dominant narratives that have often reduced such Native peoples to historical artifacts or one-dimensional stereotypes. Most importantly, exhibitions like this one contribute to a conversation about the role of photography in articulating and preserving cultural identity.