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MMWC Exhibit Explores Native Americans in World War I

In Their Own Words: Native Americans in World War I, currently on display at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, takes an intimate look at the lives and experiences of Native Americans in World War I.

The exhibit features images from the Wanamaker Collection of Native American Photographs, which holds over 8,000 photos taken between 1908 and 1923. Most of the images in the exhibit were taken between May and November 1918, and feature veterans of the war. The images range from portraits of the somber Alphonse Bearghost, posed with his hands together and his face down, and the proud Amado Garcia, smiling with gun in hand, to a photograph of the grave marker of Elson James in France, taken in 1921.

Accompanying the photographs is a wealth of documentation about the men's experiences, including a survey sent to Native American veterans in 1919 and 1920 by photographer Joseph K. Dixon. Dixon was attempting to document Native American soldiers' patriotism and loyalty to the United States, in the war effort and beyond. The Mathers Museum has 2,700 completed questionnaires in its collections.

Dixon's first experiences with Native American tribes were in 1908, a summer he spent with the Montana Crow. His photographs from that trip were largely staged to for dramatic imagery, but subsequent visits to the Crow tribe, among others, opened up an opportunity for Dixon to focus more attention on individual subjects. It was through these latter visits that Dixon grew increasingly committed to championing Native American rights.

"He went in as a voyeur and came out as an activist," said MMWC Chief Curator Ellen Sieber.

The questions from Dixon's survey yielded responses from representatives of Cherokee, Oneida, Blackfoot, and Winnebago tribes, among many others. Questions regarding Native American contributions to Liberty Bonds exemplify Dixon's attempt to provide evidence of the Native Americans' commitment to war and to the nation.

At the time, more than 40% of Native Americans were not considered citizens of the United States. Dixon's goal was to gather support for the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Prior to that, a non-citizen was considered "ward of the government."

Native Americans' feelings about their lack of citizenship varied. As the exhibit explains, the questionnaires and photographs served as vehicles for change in conditions, culminating in the Citizenship Act, "making all US Indians citizens whether they welcomed that status or not."

The questionnaires reflect this variety of emotions, ranging from stoic to frustrated. "I liked [fighting] all right. I was used well," one soldier, Louis Bighorn Elk of the Hunkpapa Sioux, noted in his survey responses. "Never had any trouble with officers...I was not afraid."

Some, like James B. Cooper, a Crow tribal member, were less enthusiastic, limiting their responses to "Do not care to tell my experiences."

The exhibit captures the complexity and variety of feelings surrounding Native American participation in the war and the movement towards widespread citizenship by offering a multitude of responses. Even beyond the physical limitations of wall space for displaying the photographs and questionnaires, a touch-screen computer adjacent to the displayed photos offers an expanse of additional surveys for visitors to read.

In Their Own Words: Native Americans in World War I will be on display through February 15, 2015. The Mathers Museum of World Cultures is located at 416 North Indiana Avenue, Bloomington, Indiana. The Mathers Museum exhibition hall and Museum Store are open Tuesdays through Fridays, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays, from 1 to 4:30 p.m.

Free visitor parking is available by the Indiana Avenue lobby entrance. Metered parking is available at the McCalla School parking lot on the corner of Ninth Street and Indiana Avenue. The parking lot also has spaces designated for Indiana University C and E permits. During the weekends free parking is available on the surrounding streets.

An access ramp is located at the Fess Avenue entrance, on the corner of Ninth Street and Fess Avenue. Reserved parking spaces are available on Ninth Street, between Fess Avenue and Indiana Avenue. If you have a disability and need assistance, special arrangements can be made to accommodate most needs. Please call 812-855-6873.