The Apsaalooke, or Crow Tribe of Native Americans, are a proud people with a history that goes back thousands of years. The Montana Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs notes that about seventy-five percent of the tribe’s approximate population of 10,000 live on or near the Crow Reservation in Montana. Eighty-five percent of them speak Crow as their first language.
Indians.org notes that the Crow once lived nomadically within what is now Yellowstone River Valley. They would live in teepees made from animal hides that were large enough to fit entire families. Due to pressure from the Ojibwe and Cree tribes (then known as the Iron Confederacy), the Crow settled in their current area after being driven from the Northern Plains.
They lived a simple nomadic life, raising their boys to be hunters and making use of hides from animals for their clothing. Women often played important roles within the tribe.
Nowadays, the tribe resides in the Reservation south of Billings, Montana. Their history has been told many different ways, not the least of which is through the stunning photography of Cree photographer Richard Throssel.
According to Christian Science Monitor, Richard Throssel began to live among the Crow Tribe in 1902. He was born in Marengo, Washington, in 1882 – part Cree and part French-Canadian. When he was advised to live in a drier climate to alleviate his rheumatism, he moved to the Crow Reservation in Montana in 1902 when he was just twenty years old.
He started photographing the lives of the Apsaalooke peoples once he arrived. In 1905, he submitted his first photographs for copyright. Also in 1905, Throssel met Edward S. Curtis, an ethnographer who had a penchant for photography. The influence of Curtis upon Throssel became apparent in his later photography.
He was adopted into the Crow Tribe in 1906, which gave him unique opportunities to get close to the tribe and photograph their culture in a way non-natives never could. The American Heritage Center has a database of many of his photographs. Throssel used vivid lighting with staged arrangements in order to create a varied and intimate view of life as a Crow.
He photographed the Crows for the Wanamaker Expedition in 1908 and for the Indian Service in 1909. He opened up his own commercial photography business in Billings, Montana after resigning from the Indian Service. His personal collection of photographs eventually reached nearly 1,000 pictures including 180 Crow portraits, 352 images of daily life among the Crow people, and 63 revered ceremonial images.
The American Heritage Center further notes that Throssel’s photography was distinct from the photography of other contemporary photographers. Because he was able to form such a rich and personal relationship with the Crow people, he was able to set himself apart in obtaining unique glimpses into their life and culture.
His photographs were taken during a period when the Crow Tribe was in transition – adapting to new ways of life. Some of these photographs depict major developments such as the first Crows living in log cabins as opposed to teepees.
Throssel had a section of his personal collection that he referred to as the “Western Classics.” These were images of the Native American lifestyle that captured what Throssel considered to be “nostalgic moments.”
The influence of Edward S. Curtis showed through in the sentimentality of Throssel’s work, which can be compared to Curtis’s own masterwork of Native American photography, The North American Indian.
The American Heritage Center has archived a large collection of Throssel’s photographs as well as other materials relating to his photographic work. His collection of nearly 2,500 photographs, negatives, and lantern slides of lifestyle, spirituality, personage, and village imagery live on in their collection – preserved so that future generations can enjoy Throssel’s unique glimpse into Native American life.
Throssel was twice elected as Yellowstone County’s representative to the Montana Legislature, and his interest in politics continued until his death in 1933.