Native American Portraits

Many artists have specialized in creating Native American portraits.

There is something in a Native American portrait that seems to touch you deeply.  The portraits are often surprisingly lifelike and portray the hardship and poverty imposed on these once strong and proud people.  As the Indians were forced to reservations, they faced many new strange things – different schools, odd religion, and racism.  All the changes they went through can often be seen on their faces in a portrait.

Just by looking at the Native American portraits, you can tell so many things about the person.  There are portraits of men, women, even children that show a heritage somewhat lost over the years through repression.  And yet, the spirit of the individual still seems to shine through in each portrait.

One artist who has done striking Native American portrait photography is William Coupon.  In 1979, he began what he calls his “social studies” series of photos.  He realized that he could make contact with people through photographs.  After covering the sub-culture of the late 70’s punk scene in Manhattan, he went to Haiti and the Australian Outback.  While photographing the Aborigines people of Australia, he decided to come back to America to do Native American portraits.  He spent a year photographing people who had left the reservations around the country to come to New York for work.  His portraits were of Native Americans in their traditional attire as well as everyday attire.  In each portrait, their faces spoke volumes.  This series work became a life-long project for him.

Jeff Dunas is another artist who has done Native American portraits.  He is responsible for the “Native American Portrait Series” which was commissioned by the Eastman Kodak Corporation.  His portraits were done of Native Americans performing in the American Indian Dance Theater in 1989.  The set of ten Native American portraits were donated by the Eastman Kodak Corporation to the American Indian College Fund.  The portraits were intended to be used at fund-raising activities as well as exhibited at American Indian universities.

Another Native American portrait artist is Charles Bird King.  Born in 1785, Charles Bird King studied portrait painting from Samuel King, Edward Savage, and Benjamin West.  He became the first American artist to specialize in portraits of Native Americans such as Young Omaha, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawnees.  He took many photos of Native Americans who came to Washington to meet with officials.  Thomas L. McKenney, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, commissioned the portraits.  These portraits as well as those by other artists were published in the book History of the Indian Tribes of North America.  He also has portraits on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

A national exhibit called American Indian Portraits:  Elbridge Ayer Burbank in the West (1987-1910) features more than 60 portraits.  E.A., as he was called, was the only artist to paint Native American Apache chief Geronimo in life.  He left Chicago to paint Geronimo at Fort Sill in 1897 and was so taken with the Native Americans, he stayed and between 1897 and 1910, Burbank painted over 1,000 Native American portraits from 125 different tribes.

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