Breaking the Silence: Nineteenth-Century Indian Delegations in Washington, D.C.

Portrait of Sioux Indians in DC
Portrait of Dakotan (Sioux) Indians in Washington, D.C., 1858. PM 2004.29.5858

Breaking the Silence examines a selection of photographs taken by the McClees Gallery and the Addis Studio in Washington, D.C., 1858–1867 of Native American delegates to the U.S. government. The exhibit explores the context for these visits, the identities of the individuals portrayed, and the use of this type of photography in fashioning an iconic image of the Native American, an image that persisted well into the twentieth-century and, in some ways, still survives.

Only 50 years after President Thomas Jefferson charged Lewis and Clark with opening diplomatic relations with the tribes, Native American life had changed dramatically. Under increasing pressure from Anglo movement westward, Native American culture had been severely disrupted, and violent clashes with Anglo settlers had become increasingly common. In an attempt to resolve these conflicts, the U.S. government adopted a policy of trying to keep the two groups separate by moving the Indians onto reservations, and trying to "civilize" them; i.e., convert them to Anglo religion and lifestyles.

In this context, many tribes sent delegations to Washington, D.C. to conduct treaty negotiations, seek compliance with existing treaties, or resolve disputes with Indian agents or other state and federal authorities. As official diplomatic delegations to Washington, these delegates were photographed in the course of their meetings with government officials. Tribal delegates were photographed in their native diplomatic dress or Anglo suits.

Breaking the Silence examines the context and content of the delegate images and the mythic construct they helped to create. Biographical information and interviews with descendants restore their voices by providing descriptions of the delegates' experiences in Washington and, in their own words, describe the actions and decisions they had to make for their people during this tumultuous time.

Curated by Diana Loren and Desireé Martinez.

This exhibition was on display at the Peabody Museum from April 2005 to December 2005.