Ethnography

Assuming a Culture: Native American Postcards

When postcards were being circulated during the early 20th century, one of the more popular subject matters that were featured on these postcards were photographs of non-Western cultural groups. As Western curiosity grew concerning foreign cultures, the display of groups performing traditional ceremonies and posing for portraits in their became a way for Westerners to grasp a sense of their way of life. But making hypotheses about an entire culture based on a single photo on a postcard deems itself to be problematic.

Front: This postcard, created circa 1900, is captioned “Hopi Snake Dance” and features a scene captured by George Wharton James. The inscription on the backside does little to educate the viewer of the ritual that is being depicted here
Back: Notice the lack of contextual information (and inclusion of inappropriate syntax) included here that would give the reader valuable insight into the Hopi culture

In this context, Western ideologies and imperialist opinions have squandered the opportunity to educate Westerners about a Hopi tradition that has existed for thousands of years.

Postcard inscribed with “Apache Warriors”

Additionally, because these postcards do not include didactic information, details and attributes’ significance are left to the Western imagination.

Assuming aspects a culture based on a single photograph raises concerns about misinformation and promotes the imperialist attitudes that already surround the Indigenous American population, especially during the time these postcards were circulated in the turn of the century. These ethnographic postcards, in conjunction with racist Western ideologies, contributed to the widespread exploitation and exoticism of Native Americans.


For Further Reading

Chang, Alexandra. “Visualizing Global Asias.” Verge: Studies in Global Asias, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 78-97. 

Cure, Monica. “The Economic Postcard.” In Picturing the Postcard: A New Media Crisis at the Turn of the Century, 39-74. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

Said, Edward. “Orientalism.” In The Selected Works of Edward Said, 1966-2006, edited by Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin, 63-114. New York: Vintage Books, 2019. 

Shin Huey Chong, Sylvia. “Orientalism.” In Keywords for Asian American Studies, 182-185. New York: NYU Press, 2015. 

Qureshi, Sadiah. Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth Century Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.