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Photo-discovery

May 2024
1min read

As one who has had a lifelong interest in historic Western photographers, it came as a pleasant surprise to learn that one of the earliest, and most accomplished, had been unknown to me. Dr. James S. Brust and American Heritage are to be commended for a handsome introduction to the work of John H. Fouch. Some of his images are so remarkable as to elicit wonder at how he managed to achieve the lighting under any circumstances, let alone within a mud-chinked log hovel on the Yellowstone frontier. In particular, his seated portrait of the Nez Percé Chief Joseph is almost miraculous in its technical virtuosity. If one had to select the ten finest nineteenth-century photographs of American Indian people, surely this picture would be high on the list.

In ethnographic terms the most significant of the Fouch portraits is the one that the photographer unfortunately titled, Squaw Jim, and His Squaw . This is the earliest photograph of an American Indian berdache, a man who chose to live and dress as a woman. Moreover, from a portrait made half a century later, we can identify this particular individual as Osh-Tisch (“Finds Them and Kills Them”), the most-famous Crow berdache of “her” generation. The woman seated beside Osh-Tisch may be her close friend The-Other-Magpie—both had been heroines of the Battle of the Rosebud the year before Fouch made this portrait. Early in the battle a young Crow warrior named Bull Snake had been shot down while making a charge on the Sioux lines. Although many of the most famous Crow war leaders were present and saw Bull Snake fall, it was the berdache Osh-Tisch and The-Other-Magpie who raced out to save him in the teeth of the Sioux onslaught. Osh-Tisch stood over the fallen man and shot a Sioux charging in to finish off Bull Snake. The-Other-Magpie, who was armed with only a willow stick, dashed to where the Sioux had fallen, counted coup on him, and came back with his scalp. Together, the two friends got Bull Snake onto a horse, and brought him back to his family, where he recovered. If, as I think likely, the woman in this photograph is The-Other-Magpie, then John H. Fouch should not only be credited with the first portrait of an American Indian berdache but also with the earliest (and the only contemporary ) picture of an Indian woman-warrior.

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