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Unexpected find in Mathers archives brings man's academic pursuits back to own Tuscarora Indian identity

Feb. 17, 2016

Joe Stahlman studied the effect of governance on identity-building while working on his dissertation in anthropology at IU. But it was an unexpected find in the Mathers Museum of World Cultures archives that brought his academic pursuits back to his own Tuscarora Indian identity.

joe stahlman


“I wasn’t expecting to find anything at all,” Stahlman said. “But I ended up finding my great-great-grandfather, two other relatives and possibly a third.”

Stahlman was looking through the Wanamaker Collection of American Indian photographs, the second largest collection of photographs of native people, and stumbled upon six photos from Joseph K. Dixon’s early 1900s visit to the Tuscarora nation, the smallest of the Iroquois communities. The Wanamaker collection includes nearly 8,000 photos taken of Native Americans between 1908 and 1923.

While combing the archives, Stahlman recognized the Tuscarora names, his family members and his ancestors.

After Stahlman’s discovery, the Mathers gave Stahlman digital copies of the six photos to share with his family. Inspired by an ethnographic study using photographs his wife worked on in South Africa, Stahlman then took those photos back to the Tuscarora nation and began photographing members of the community holding or interacting with the archive photos of their ancestors.

Those photographs are now featured alongside the Wanamaker photos of the Tuscarora in the Mathers exhibit “Stirring the Pot: Bringing the Wanamakers Home.” The exhibit is on display through May 27.

“One of the reasons I love anthropology is because I like the research process and finding new things in the archives,” Stahlman said. “This exhibit grew out of that.”

Without intending to embark on a photographic ethnography, Stahlman and his wife Fileve, also an anthropologist, found themselves immersed on a mission of reconfiguring genealogies, including Joe’s own. Although the Tuscarora Indians do not allow census data to be gathered, it is estimated that the community has 1,000 to 1,200 people. Because of the small size, many living Tuscarora members are a descendant of at least one of the chiefs or the clan mother featured in the six original photos.

Over three years of trips to Stahlman’s family and the Tuscarora Nation in western New York, visiting three to four times each year, the couple took photos of the modern Tuscarora community, holding or interacting with one or more of the Wanamaker photographs.

The couple’s photos simultaneously celebrate modernity and honor Tuscarora heritage. They also show a different perspective of the Wanamaker photos which were most likely taken as a “visual spectacle” to share with the majority of Americans who had never seen an Indian before, according to Brian Gilley, professor of anthropology and director of the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center.

Stahlman's project using the Wanamaker collection "turns the original intent on its head and creates new possibilities for indigenous sovereignty concerning how they are represented and how knowledge is produced about them,” Gilley said. “This project reconfigures the visual aspect of the settler colonial project toward indigenous control of representation.”

joe stahlman

Wendy Bissell viewing Chief Luther Jack with Jimmy Printup in background, taken July 2013. | PHOTO BY JOE STAHLMAN

In addition to learning more about Stahlman’s own heritage, the couple also used the photographs to shed light on a few of the misconceptions about native people including their dress and the Tuscarora relationship with modernity.

“When people think about Indians, they think of feathers, leather and the head dress,” Joe Stahlman said, pointing to the modern dress of his family and the Victorian dress of his ancestors in the Wanamaker photos. “With these images, we are able to show how modern these people really are.”

The Wanamaker’s photos also offer insight into Victorian-era American culture. The six photos include one woman, clan mother Susan Thompson. Each Tuscarora clan is headed by a matriarch who handpicks the chief.

“It was an American man taking the photos,” Fileve Stahlman said. “White men weren’t taking many photos of women. But it does not reflect the reality of female leadership in the community.”

For Joe Stahlman, social media has further helped him learn about the descendants of the photographed Tuscarora Indians and his own heritage.

“There is no cohesive Indian community (in Bloomington.) Without much indigenous contact, it’s always a lonely place to be,” he said. “But we shared the photos on social media and were able to keep a community connection.”

Sharing his photos on social media also allowed the project to expand, and he invited others to share their stories.

“Because of social media, I continue to learn more about the photos,” he said. “It has become a shared experience, between me, my family and those in the photos, and a shared knowledge.”

While the gallery is academic in its effect of educating viewers on modern Tuscarora traditions and lifestyles, the portraits are personal above all else.

“Stahlman’s project is not asking if the photos are authentic or any other common questions or critiques,” Gilley said. “Rather the exhibit is about who is in the photo. It is about the people and their familial legacies.”

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