Two children ride along on a beige-coloured horse, the same colour as the sands on the pathway. Three more kids, excited and full of activity run after the steed towards what appears to be a cow farm. A photo captures their exuberance. This photo, and many others, forms part of an online gallery by web magazine Mashable. More famed for their millennial-angled technology journalism, Mashable instead travelled back in time to a simpler age, showcasing a series of photos taken on various Native American reservations and nearby towns in 1972.
In 1972, the United States federal government, which was looking into the conditions of the (currently) 1.4 million people living on lands set aside for the First Nations, employed the services of photographer Terry Eiler to visit the south-west of the country and give an outsiders view into the lives of some of the most disadvantaged of Americans, many of whom had their lands seized by white settlers during the ‘Wild West‘ days of the 19th century and were herded onto the reservations, often poor-quality and non-arable land allocated by the federal government and administered by the nations themselves under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Nowadays many Native American communities struggle with lack of employment and amenities, as well as social ills such as extreme poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse.
Back in 1972, as the Native American rights movement was in its earliest days, Eiler visited three reservations belonging to the Navajo, Hopi and Havasupai reservations. The Navajo nation‘s reservation was the largest, about the same size as the US state of West Virginia. The photographer also visited the village of Supai, nestled in the Grand Canyon of Colorado, said to be the most remote human habitation in the southern ’48 states’ region and accessible only by an eight-mile hike through rocky terrain or via helicopter.
Eiler’s photo project provides an snapshot into a part of America few outside the First Nations have even seen, let alone understood. He shows a world that was becoming modernised and similar to mainstream America but at the same time, was still clinging tenaciously to their traditions, forged over millennia. His subjects are natural and act as themselves, a stark contrast to the wooden and forced appearances of Native Americans made to pose in the sepia photographs from the ‘pioneer days’.
His photos cover a wide range of subjects, from a sheep paddock in the desert sands of the Navajo reservation in Arizona, a retinue of cute lambs staring back at the camera, their white wool contrasting strongly with the ochre ground underneath their hooves, to a Navajo woman in a bright red blouse standing for a quick snap near the Arizonan town of Shiprock.
Others show Native American families and men out and about, gardening, horse riding and being at home. While clearly getting on with life, it is obvious that the living conditions were at times very different from most American communities, but also shows the industriousness of the Navajo and other peoples, whether cramming into a truck to get to work, training as teachers, or selling bead necklaces to tourists visiting the reservations. Local scenery, especially the Havasu Falls of Arizona, also makes a frequent appearance in Eiler’s collection.
The Eiler collection is now part of the U.S. National Archives. You can view all the pictures by clicking HERE.