Ten Ethical Issues Affecting American Indians and Photography

The minority groups in the United States face multiple challenges in their daily experiences. Pictures of Indians surround us as the respectable savage, the scalping Apache, the shy Indian squaw, the trusty aide, and the sad vanished race. These pictures can be seen during Thanksgiving festivities, in athletic associations, in toys, grown-up Halloween outfits, and Hollywood movies. These representations have a long visual history, owing a lot of their mass-social fame to photographic representations of Indians from the nineteenth century. The European occupation was successful in North America regionally, visually, and mentally too. With the Europeans as the shade upbeat voyagers or pseudo-anthropologists, the Indians turned into externalized subjects. Nevertheless, there was resistance. Despite the fact that Indians have been truly oppressed using photography, they have played both the subject and the artisan to subvert the provincial force dynamic. They express their energy as more than just minor casualties of the photographic eye. The paper focuses on the issues that have affected Indians and their photography and how the latter influences their true heritage and innovativeness.  

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Image of a Tragedy for Sale

The images describing American Indians are those that depict human suffering. Notably, they have experienced some hardships, particularly in the assimilation with other races. During such struggles, it is inevitable to have conflicts. Thereby, early photographers took the opportunity to expand their income through capturing disturbing images.

Lack of Privacy

Privacy is a broad concept that entails different components. The American Indians have been publicized due to their rich history. Due to this, it leaves them vulnerable to separate violations of their most closely held values. For instance, capturing pictures when they are in the middle of their rituals could be perceived as a privacy violation as the pictures capture their intimate sessions. Photographs are good memory tokens. However, they should not compromise the privacy of an individual by exposing them to a situation that intrudes on their personal values and beliefs.

Mishandling of Pictures

Mishandling American Indian image   is an inevitable ethical violation of their rights. It is equally important when those that belong to the community and those considered vital for their traditions are involved. The editing of the images may lead to distortion of the perception that people have towards the American Indians. The distortion of the public image can result in different challenges when interacting with other peoples of America. Interestingly, an image of being violent would hinder cohesion and meaningful interactions with other individuals. Furthermore, it is not ethical to change the elements of photography without a prior notice of the persons in a particular picture.

Insufficient Training and Education

Education is regarded as an essential provision for every community member to have. The limited amount of historical and cultural knowledge regarding a person’s tribe and tribal ways may be a contributing factor as to why outsiders may wish to take advantage of them. While aiming to uphold their ways through traditional photographs and other continuous images, the American Indians may fail at educating their tribespeople regarding the specific details involving their community. Some of these uneducated individuals thereby fail to realize the need to protect their cultural memories through photographic images. There is also the possibility of them being swayed easily to hand over treasurable tribal artifacts, like communal images, to foreigners as they lack the knowledge of their worth.

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Lack of Recognizing Community-Based Research Contracts and Protocols

Notably, some foreigners fail to recognize community-based contracts and rules, undermining them and upholding those that they have introduced themselves. These foreigners fail to realize that Native Americans have certain laws recognized by the federal government exclusively that do not apply to other races including Caucasians, Blacks, and Latinos. These rules aim at protecting the cultural images and artifacts of the Native American people. Therefore, any breach of such contracts and protocols is punishable under the law, both the federal law and the one practiced by the American Indians. 

Minimal Consultations with Community Leaders

Additionally, Native Americans face the issues of lack of collaboration and consultation with tribal leaders by outsiders and those displaying their communal artifacts and photographs. This lack of coordination may lead to mishandling of unique images, infringement of copyright issues, and lawful intervention. If, for example, a particular photograph belonging to the tribe or taken for the benefit of the tribe is shown without the consultation and consent from the leaders, such an act is in contradiction with the law. To avoid such occurrences, persons displaying such images require prior consent from the leaders and the details for the display to be agreed upon. 


Independence in photography can be defined as the ability to maintain the independence of the subject that is being exposed in a particular situation. In the majority of cases, the subject does not have any say in the outcome of the picture. In the past of Americans Indians, they have been exposed to situations where they lacked the ultimate say on the state of the final image. The professional tribal photographers such as James Meddaugh were also exposed to such circumstances with his renowned picture of 1934. This concept has been widely spread to the current societies due to the tourist attraction.

Violation of Intellectual Rights

The American Indian culture is a source of tourism. Thereby, any photographs taken ought to adhere to some regulations. These rules are critical to ensuring that components of the community are not exposed to malicious users. Violations of intellectual rights occur when art galleries engage in displaying artifacts and images without prior consent. In addition, there is the possibility of art forgers duplicating original pieces of work and passing them as theirs. Indeed, since some of the tribal pictures may lack protection in vaulted galleries, there are those possibilities of theft, forgery, and display without consent. 

Modern Day Perception of the American Indian Characters

The harm of nineteenth-century photographic conventions can be seen today in the cliché development of Indians and White assessment of Indian character. The pictures of Curtis, Rinehart Trager still circulate around people. However, there have been Indians who have inventively exploited the capabilities of photography. Red Cloud utilized photography as a politically charged instrument of strategy and resistance. Horace Poolaw grabbed a camera and created pictures of his Indian society through his eyes, scrutinizing the American constitutional framework and reservation legislative issues. Following in their strides, contemporary specialists, such as Shields and Tsinhnahjinnie, proceed to investigate and subvert the visual conversation of the nineteenth-century photography by making another one that tries to free Indians from photographic subjection completely. It is with this thought of liberating the Indians from the photo that this papers comes to an end. In her exposition “When is a picture worth a thousand words?” Tsinhnahjinnie recounts the narrative of her review of George Trager’s photo of Bigfoot lying dead in the snow taken after the slaughter at Wounded Knee.

Different Perceptions

Finally, the American Indians face the challenges of the various tribal images being depicted in some ways, in particular by the outsiders. Foreigners who participate in viewing Native American cultural artworks without the assistance of an interpreter to explain to them the messages behind the given pictures are amongst those responsible for these varying perceptions. Scholars who unknowingly document their thoughts and opinions about the photographs without sufficient research contribute unethically to the way the outside world views these people. There is a need to document each photo based on the story and explanation behind it, coupled with thorough and sufficient research.


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