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Buffalo Dancer: The Biography of an Image

This dissertation is the first book-length study to bridge American and Native American art histories and Native studies. To do so, it develops methods of image biography, or following a particular image through space and time. The image in question begins as Karl Bodmer’s watercolor portrait of a Numak'aki [Mandan] Benók Óhate [buffalo bull society] leader, later titled "Mandan Buffalo Dancer" (1834). Starting from its creation point in Indian Territory, the narrative subsequently tracks "Mandan Buffalo Dancer" in and out of various historical and cultural contexts, forms, and genres across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in both Native American and non-Native settings.
Tracing how this story’s various agents utilized print (broadly construed as processes of technological image reproduction), I argue that nineteenth-century systems of racial oppression, based on visual criteria of difference, emerged in part through the very mechanics by which print operates. These mechanics underwrote not only a system of racial notation—the very language of “stereotype,” “cliché,” and “racial typing” belie their sourcing in print technologies—but also a larger, wide-ranging system of knowledge reproduction and distribution that facilitated the containment of Native peoples under the logics of Manifest Destiny. Simultaneously, Native American communities employed print (or auratic cultural practices that reproduce social memory) to promote the continuation of Native societies. These two long histories of print fed the rise of Native political activism in the 1960s and 1970s, as Native communities and artists worked to transform the historical effects of Manifest Destiny’s print enterprise.
Writing these histories in parallel, this project produces an infrastructural study of print image production and valuation. It develops a critical, historical, and cross-cultural language for North American print studies. Finally, in assembling its archive of paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, diaries and letters, advertisements, archaeological artifacts, architecture, journalism, ethnological reports, political cartoons, museum displays, literature, and Native language, this study boldly re-imagines its methodological contact zone, whereby Native histories challenge long-standing paradigms of American art history, visual and material culture take a significant place in Native studies, and Native art history interprets its objects through local languages, histories, and cosmologies.