Nancy Marie Mithlo § Anne Ray Resident Scholar

“Of His Time: The Modernist Legacy of Kiowa Photographer Horace Poolaw”

Nancy Marie MithloNancy Marie Mithlo2011–2012 Anne Ray Resident ScholarNancy Marie Mithlo2011–2012 Anne Ray Resident Scholar

During her fellowship at SAR, Nancy Mithlo completed her manuscript “Of His Time: The Modernist Legacy of Kiowa Photographer Horace Poolaw,” which will accompany the 2012 National Museum of the American Indian exhibition of Poolaw’s work. After apprenticing with a photographer at the age of seventeen, Poolaw went on to record a critical transitional period of Oklahoma’s Plains Indians, taking thousands of photos of family members and others from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Over the past ten years, Mithlo has staged three separate field school programs with co-researchers and students in order to restore, catalogue, digitize, and store the total collection of 2,000 Poolaw images. While scholarly knowledge of Poolaw is now established, no one has yet systematically captured or assessed the significance of his entire body of work. Mithlo says the approach utilized in the collection of data, including thirty-six hours of audio files and boxes of print documents, follows the standards she learned working with the photographer’s daughter and her aunt, Linda Poolaw, when Linda initially brought the collection to Stanford University in the late 1990s. Mithlo, a graduate student at the time, appreciated Poolaw’s openness to direct student involvement in research, the return of information to the source community, and the interpretation of the images within the context of the cultures of western Oklahoma.

Through his photographs, Horace Poolaw communicates a time and place of transition for Native American cultures around Anadarko, Oklahoma. In one picture the subject may wear a traditional war bonnet, while in the next, the same subject might be dressed in a suit or jodhpurs. Mithlo refers to a series of what she calls “living room Indians.” “Bruce and Robert and Linda [all Poolaws] are in this classic 1950s–1960s American house and they’re standing around like they would usually,” says Mithlo. “Then in the next shot, they’ve got on blankets and headdresses and they’re all looking rather stoic. You can see they think it’s rather funny, what they’re doing.” She goes on to say, “Still, you have to be careful that you don’t pretend you know what they were thinking. You don’t.” She also reminds viewers of the photos not to define the term “transition” as it applies to this period negatively. “Just because you adapt to a changing culture, [that] doesn’t mean you forget or abandon your traditions.”

Find out more about Nancy Marie Mithlo by visiting the SAR website (opens in new browser window).

Follow us: