The systematic documentation of Indian delegates in Washington was formalized under Thomas McKenney, the first commissioner of the Office of Indian Affairs. Between 1818 and 1842, McKenney hired artists such as Charles Bird King to paint portraits of delegates, which later lined the halls of the Smithsonian Institution. While Indian leaders requested the first formal photographic portraits, probably as mementoes to share with their families, the Smithsonian Institution initiated the first governmental program to photograph Indians visiting Washington.
When these images first appeared, they reinforced popular misconceptions of Indians as either vengeful and uncivilized or as "Noble Savages" unwittingly caught between their "superstitious" world and "enlightened" civilization. Early anthropologists' concerns with recording the "vanishing Indian" were mirrored in the McClees' photographic studio advertisement, which said that the studio documented the "race of red men, now rapidly fading away."
"I went down to Washington again last winter. All the tribes around me whip me, kill my people, and also kill the whites about me. . . . I don't [want] war, but [I] take my Great Father's advice and keep peaceable."
—Iron Whip, Ponca Indian Agency, August 31, 1865 (Report of the Joint Special Committee 1867:400-401)
By this time, both Indian and non-Indian peoples had incorporated aspects of each other's dress into their wardrobes. Nevertheless, because this mix did not fit popular stereotypes, the photographers strove to make their subjects look "authentically" Indian by adding pipes, headdresses, and shirts.
Native leaders also deliberately wore their best regalia for ceremonies and political meetings. To dress well was, according to the Mesquaki, to wa wa se so ki or to shine out the inner light gained from spirirtual knowledge and power. In addition, many delegates donned canes and presidential medals, received at previous meetings with U.S. officials, to physically display their special relationship to the U.S. government.
Although women were rarely photographed, some accompanied delegations, and it is their handiwork seen in the portraits: tanned hides painted, quilled, beaded, and appliquéd.