- Picturing Indians: Photographic Encounters and Tourist Fantasies in H. H. Bennett's Wisconsin Dells
Steven D. Hoelscher's Picturing Indians: Photographic Encounters and Tourist Fantasies in H. H. Bennett's Wisconsin Dells centers on the story of H. H. Bennett, the foremost photographer of the Dells, yet its meticulous scholarship and sensitive readings of Bennett's relationship with the indigenous Ho-Chunk illuminates post-colonial and cross-cultural issues that widen out from Hoelscher's core focus. While Bennett emerges from the text as a somewhat friendly white capitalist limited by the ethnocentrism of his times (1843–1908), his Ho-Chunk neighbors—and subjects of some of his photographs—emerge as resourceful agents navigating the complex economic changes gripping indigenous people, Wisconsin, and larger market economies.
Hoelscher positions his interdisciplinary study within a geological and historical framework. He begins with a picture taken by Bennett of Wah-con-jaz-gah (Yellow Thunder), who had led resistance to the many forced removals of Ho-Chunk (formerly known as Winnebago) people from their ancient ancestral homeland in Wisconsin westward across the Mississippi River. Bennett uses this photo taken in 1873 to promote himself as knowledgeable about Native Americans, to promote the Dells as a tourist attraction, and to take advantage of the non-Native fad for "all things Indian." Bennett was a booster of the Dells, a seven-mile-long expanse of the Wisconsin River in the center of the state, characterized by "a maze of twisting gorges and extraordinary sandstone rock formations" (20) that had been formed fourteen thousand years ago when Glacial Lake Wisconsin broke through its southern ice dam, with "torrential floodwaters cut[ting] through the lake and glacial sediment from the surface of the sandstones, slicing a complex network of deep gorges" (22).
This region had long been a site favored by the Ho-Chunk as they made seasonal journeys from their northern hunting territory to their southern agricultural sites. As they moved from one area to the other they rested in the [End Page 531] Dells to enjoy its spiritual and ecological sustenance. Shortly before he died, Yellow Thunder bought back some of his homeland near the Dells (which had been taken forcefully by Americans); Bennett photographed him there as an elderly man "120 years old" holding a war club (4). Causcasian commentary calling Yellow Thunder "the oldest child of the tribe" is quoted by Hoelscher, who then reinstates Yellow Thunder as "a powerful, dissident leader who refused to leave his homeland" (5). This sort of juxtaposition of commentaries is typical of Hoelscher's insightful exposition of borderland tensions as experienced in the Dells region.
Henry H. Bennett was a photographic witness to this process. A veteran of the American Civil War, he set up a photographic studio in the Dells (formerly known as Kilbourn City). Henry had injured his hand during the war, so he could not continue in his former trade as a carpenter; instead he focused his attention on the Wisconsin River and his neighbors, the Ho-Chunk people who had inhabited Wisconsin for millennia, and survived genocide, forced removals, and cultural destruction. As Hoelscher writes, "Photography not only recorded that tragedy but also participated in its performance. By casting American Indians in narrowly defined roles that assumed, and seemed to demonstrate, their inferiority … H. H. Bennett created picturesque visual images that reinforced white cultural assumptions. Those assumptions were based on the erroneous, but pervasive, belief that the old-time Indians—the real Indians—were vanishing" (137).
As Hoelscher makes clear, Bennett's photos present a carefully controlled, romanticized view of Ho-Chunk, as he situates individual Ho-Chunk in a pristine environment, or in studio portraits with artifacts of Indian nations far removed from Wisconsin and/or not from Ho-Chunk culture. He treats his Native subjects as the "other," distinguishing them from Euro-American subjects. Bennett depicts white tourists as engaging in quaint, frivolous contacts with the barely tamed but potentially savage Natives, who...