In the early 20th century, anthropologists documented and exalted Native American traditions. But the people they studied lived contemporary lives and faced real-world challenges. Read full overview
Many of the images of Native Californians in the first half of the 20th century were taken by anthropologists seeking to document native traditions. Some show Native Californians engaged in the burgeoning tourist trade. Others portray family and friends in more relaxed settings.
By 1900, California’s native population — estimated at 300,000 at the time of Spanish colonization in the 1700s — had dropped to just 20,000. Over time, native groups combined, split apart, and recombined in new ways, and individuals were assimilated first into the Spanish culture and later into mainstream American life. After 1900, the number of Native Americans living in California rose steadily as Indians from other states moved to the state.
As Native Californian cultures changed, hundreds of languages and countless traditions were lost. Some traditional practices and arts, however, continued. As the 20th century began, these became valuable bits of knowledge for anthropologists to document, preserve, and study.
Many of the photographs in this topic were taken by anthropologists in the course of their fieldwork. They documented string games like cat’s cradle (part of folk culture in many parts of the world), ceremonial dances, and the names and faces of the people they encountered. They also documented domestic activities such as basket weaving, including the gathering and preparing of fibers, as depicted in several images. One woman is shown cleaning pine nuts in a woven basket; other women use mortars to prepare food. Beginning and end of life were recorded: a woman stands holding a baby in basket, and a group is shown participating in a cremation ceremony in a field.
With the closing of the frontier, Americans grew nostalgic for remnants of the disappearing West — including the “noble savage.” Anthropologists tended to be less interested in the contemporary lives of the people they were studying than in tradition, so these images portray surviving practices drawn from life before European exploration and colonization.
Other photographs in this topic, however, show Native Americans dressed for daily life in the new century. The unidentified men, women, and children photographed standing in a field in Alturas; the group of Northern California Yurok, cleaning surf fish in 1928; the families at Tule Lake and Hat Creek; and the two young women whose picture was taken at a fishing camp in 1928 all contrast with the idealized version of California’s Native Americans that appealed to tourists.
“Getting back to nature” was a popular leisure activity in the early 20th century, and tourists enjoyed visiting rustic camps and the new national parks. There, the sale of handmade Native American mementos, and the showcasing of native traditional arts and ceremonies, helped some native peoples survive hard financial times. Tourists, eager to bring home authentic souvenirs, bought handmade baskets, such as those being sold by the unidentified Tallac woman near Lake Tahoe. For many years tourists in Yosemite National Park enjoyed demonstrations of tradition-based crafts and arts, such as basket-weaving and ceremonial dances (such as the one pictured here presented by Chris Brown, also known as Chief Lemee, behind the Yosemite Museum in 1950).