The Ponca, Presidents, Politics, and Partial Answers

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler and Quinn Rosefsky (Phillips Academy Class of ’59)

There’s nothing like a good mystery and the Peabody Museum has plenty of them. A recent survey of the museum’s archives, including the extensive photographic collection, uncovered an intriguing photograph. The image itself was made with a panoramic camera and measures 22 inches in length by 10 inches in height; it’s tattered and torn and bears traces of the thumbtacks that once held it up. The subject is a large group of American Indians and Anglo-Americans in front of an official looking building. Faces can be seen peering out on the group from the building’s tall windows. In all, there are 16 American Indian men, 4 white men, 2 women, and 2 young boys.

Group photo of American Indians and Euro-Americans at the White House, January 1922
The Peabody Museum version of the Ponca photograph. No identifying information was included–the photo was found in the museum’s archives.

No caption or identifying information is included. Dress varies, with some of the American Indians in beaded regalia and feathered headdresses, while others are dressed in suits and ties with overcoats; on the right side of the photo some men wear feathered headdresses, while some on the left side wear their hair in long braids. The white members of the group are attired in suits with starched collars, ties and either bowler or fedora hats.  Only one of the member of the group was immediately recognizable to us—namely Warren Moorehead—the Peabody’s first curator and then director (he’s in the back, wearing a bowler hat and a dour expression). Moorehead’s activities extended beyond archaeology and included service on the Board of Indian Commissioners from 1908 through 1933. The commission was established as part of the federal government’s “peace policy” toward Native peoples and as a commissioner Moorehead had many opportunities to interact with tribal members and visit Indian Country. Peabody archivist Irene Gates used this information to run a series of Google searches and discovered a similar, though truncated, image preserved in the Library of Congress ( Metadata with the Library of Congress photo identifies at least two of the party—General Hugh L. Scott (to the right of Moorehead)—and Chief Chas. McDonald (on Moorehead’s left, wearing the bear claw necklace). The White House is given as the location and 1921 to 1923 is offered as a date range; the photo was made by Harris & Ewing, a Washington D.C. photographic firm.

Truncated version of the Ponca photo at the Library of Congress
The Library of Congress truncated version of the Ponca photograph. The title is given as Gen. Hugh L. Scott & Chief Chas. McDonald with group in front of White House. LC-H27- A-4011 [P&P] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Who were Scott and McDonald? Hugh Lenox Scott (1853-1934) was a West Point graduate, later superintendent of West Point, and veteran of US conflicts from the Indian wars of the late 19th century through the beginning of World War I. In the army he worked closely with tribal allies and developed military signal systems based on American Indian sign language. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Scott had relied on diplomacy and level-headedness to de-escalate conflicts with American Indians. After his retirement as a major general and army chief of staff he served on the Board of Indian Commissioners from 1919 to 1929, during which time he remained friendly towards American Indians and influential on their behalf. He published a 1928 memoir called Some Memories of a Soldier, as well as several anthropological articles dealing with the Sun Dance and American Indian sign language.

General Hugh L. Scott and Chief Charles McDonald
Gen. Hugh L. Scott & Chief Chas. McDonald of Inca City, Okla. LC-H27- A-4010 [P&P] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Chief Chas McDonald is more of an enigma. Another Library of Congress photo ( provides some clues. Here we find just two men–Hugh Scott and McDonald; the metadata indicates that the photo, also taken by Harris & Ewing, was made in Washington, DC on January 27, 1922. The photograph was published in The Washington Post on the same date—the caption reads “Gen. Hugh L. Scott, formerly chief of staff, U.S.A., and a famous old Indian fighter in his day, conversing by Indian sign language with Chief Charles McDonald, of the Ponca City tribe, Ponca City, Oklahoma. Photo made after the chief had called on the President.” At this point we can probably assume that the Peabody’s group photo and the similar, but truncated, Library of Congress image were made at the same time, specifically on or around January 27, 1922. Here things begin to come together. McDonald and his delegation could well be members of the Ponca tribe. The Ponca are a Siouan-speaking group, now with federally-recognized tribes in Nebraska and Oklahoma. The Ponca place their origins in the Ohio Valley, but were living in Nebraska when first contacted by Anglo-Americans. Federal efforts at relocation saw their removal, in part, to Oklahoma. And the Ponca were no strangers to sending delegations to Washington;  in 1877, 1909, and 1914 Ponca representatives visited the capital to lobby for their rights. One of the Ponca delegates in 1909 and 1914 was Louis McDonald, identified as the son of Buffalo Bull Chief (aka McDonald). A little genealogical research reveals that Charles McDonald (1873-1928) was also the son of Buffalo Chief McDonald (d. 1912). Charles appears occasionally in records; for example, in 1897 he and all adult Ponca in Oklahoma signed a grazing agreement that has been preserved in U.S. Congressional records. Louis McDonald (1880-1958), however, is better known; he helped found the Native American Church, a blend of traditional and Protestant beliefs known for its use of peyote in ceremonies. He also served as an informant for several ethnographic studies of the Ponca, including James Howard’s 1965 study for the Bureau of American Ethnography and Weston La Barre’s 1938 classic The Peyote Cult. Howard notes of Louis McDonald that he attended Carlisle Indian School and spent much of his adult life working on his tribe’s behalf in Washington. Comparison with a National Anthropological Archives portrait suggests that he’s also in the panoramic photo—standing behind the man with the cane.

Photo of Ponca delegation to Washington DC, April 1909
Ponca delegation to Washington DC, April 1909. Left to right, standing: Louis McDonald (son of Te-nu’-gaga-hi), Mon’-non’-ku-ge or Mike Roy; sitting: Mon-chu’-hin-xte, or Hairy Bear, Monshitin’-nu-ga (called Frank White Eagle). Negative 4239, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Again, Irene examined other photographs in the Library of Congress digital archive and noticed that the man with the cane was in other photos that included American Indians. This man appears to be Charles H. Burke, who served as Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1921 to 1929. Burke was often at odds with the members of the Board of Indian Commissioners and strongly advocated for the assimilation of American Indians and the end to traditional lifeways and religious practices, as well as dances—both sacred and secular. In fact, Burke’s presence may explain Moorehead’s sour expression in the photo. The other members of the group—Anglo and American Indian—remain unknown to us. We attempted to match them to other members of the Board of Indian Commissioners. From their annual report we learn that the Commissioners met in Washington for their annual meeting, January 25-26, 1922—just days before these photos were made. We even considered the possibility that one of the men was Warren Harding or Calvin Coolidge—not outlandish since the setting is the exterior of the West Wing. The photos, however, just don’t match. Comparisons with photos of other Poncas may help.

The purpose of the Ponca visit to Washington remains unknown to us, though from what we have pieced together it appears that Ponca Chief Charles McDonald met with President Warren Harding. A brief in The Washington Post from January 28, 1922—the same time period as our group photo—tells us that “a troupe of eleven Ponca Indians from Oklahoma” performed at the new auditorium of the City Club. Anthropologist Francis La Flesche of the Smithsonian Institution was on hand to explain the dances. Other newspaper stories from the same time confirm that these are the Ponca that had visited the White House; a note in the Friday, January 1927 edition of The Evening Star (page 10) tells us:

Eleven Indians from the plains of Oklahoma, garbed in their native costumes and equipped with all the weapons and tokens for their primitive war and sun dances, will furnish the feature number of the program to be presented at the City Club’s first stag night party in the new clubhouse tonight. The Indians, members of Ponca tribe, are in Washington to lay a petition before President Harding.

A similar note in the January 21, 1922 edition of The Washington Herald (page 5) confirms that dance was a big part of the Ponca’s delegation to Washington and that they and members of other Plains tribes participated in a “powwow” organized by the Archaeological Society of Washington:

The Archaeological Society of Washington has sent out cards for the 106th meeting of the society as guests of Victor J. Evans at the Victor Building. 724-726 Ninth Street Northwest, this evening, at 8:30 o’clock, when an Indian pow wow will be featured by native Indians from the Plains tribes, including champion dancers and singers from the Poncas, Otoes and other tribes interpreted by Francis La Flesche, a full-blooded Indian. Also the all-Indian film illustrating an historical event among the Kiowas and Comanches entitled “The Daughters of Dawn.” Guests are invited only by host or executive committee. In addition to a large collection of Indian curios which will be on display, there will be a number of Indians from the Poncas, Winnebagoes and other tribes, in their native dances and costumes. Indian men, women and children will take part in this entertainment. This affair, will he attended by a number of members of Congress.

The reference here to Victor J. Evans is interesting. Evans (1865-1931) was a successful patent attorney who also amassed a large collection of American Indian artifacts. His plan to construct a replica Maya temple near the National Zoo to house his collection never came to fruition, but he did represent several American Indian tribes in legal matters before the federal government. The other American Indians depicted in the photo may well be Otoe, Kiowa, and Comanche, since the newspaper accounts indicate that they were visiting at the same time. Also, it is interesting that the American Indian visitors participated in several dance performances—at least one newspaper account tells us that Commissioner Charles Burke was in attendance at one of these events—since Burke’s organization, the Indian Service, was working to stop Native dances. Specifically, Burke issued Circular No. 1655 in 1921, which made many dances “Indian offenses.” More genealogical research reveals that Charles McDonald had a son, Augustus or Gus. Gus McDonald’s (1898-1974) legacy is as one of the originators of the Fancy Dance style, which has its roots in the dances of the Hethuska Society. Attendees at modern powwows are familiar with the Fancy Dance, especially the brightly colored feather bustles.  The dance was developed in response to the government’s crackdown on traditional styles of dancing, and the Fancy Dance became popular in Wild West shows and at events open to the general public.  Gus McDonald certainly could be one of the young men in the photos of the Ponca delegation to Washington in 1922. An entry in Art and Archaeology magazine (January-June 1922 issue, pages 94-95) complete with a photograph, presents a more detailed account of the dances performed by the Ponca at the Archaeological Society powwow. Francis LaFlesche and Victor Evans are identified, but none of the Ponca are named. The same individuals seen in the Peabody photo, however, are pictured, including the two little boys—a total of 13 individuals altogether.

Image of Ponca dancers at the Archaeological Society of Washington's January 1922 powwow.
The Ponca dancers with Francis La Flesche and Victor Evans at the January 1922 powwow organized by the Archaeological Society of Washington. The image was published in the society’s magazine Art and Archaeology along with La Flesche’s interpretation of the dance.

A little more remains to be said though, specifically about the manner in which the photo preserved in the Library of Congress is both cropped—something presumably done by the photographers in the 1920s—and the way in which the picture is cataloged in the digital archive. Both effectively erase the American Indians depicted. The way the picture is cropped is most obvious. Here, the photographer “left out” 10 of the American Indians originally photographed—pretty much everyone to General Scott’s right. Why? Again, we can only speculate, however, the remaining image brackets the American Indians between two white men—General Scott and the unnamed man on the photo’s far right. Lucy Lippard, in the introduction to Partial Recall, tells us:

As we peruse old photographs from a century’s distance, we are all looking not only at but for something. That something varies among Euro-Americans and Native people. It is often necessary to pry up the surfaces of apparent pathos, as well as apparent pride, and to dig out from beneath something less accessible (page 19).

Lippard goes on to remind us that often what is most interesting is what is not in photographs of American Indians.  Similarly, Susan Sontag, in her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others, talks about how photographs have the power to objectify, to memorialize atrocities, but also to leave out the horrors—of genocide, of oppression, of loss—to create a narrative that might be more palatable.  With the group picture in mind, we can see some of this in play, especially in terms of the truncated version preserved in the Library of Congress.  Not only are people missing, left off the official version, but the decisions made in cataloging the photo in the digital archive effectively hide the entire image. The cataloger includes a title, presumably something that accompanied the original glass plate negative: “Gen. Hugh L. Scott & Chief Chas. McDonald with group in front of White House.” There is no mention that some of the group are American Indians or are wearing traditional American Indian regalia.  The lack of names associated with the image leaves us in an uncomfortable position of having to guess who is Native and who isn’t, or to simply sidestep this question, which is difficult in trying to give even the simplest description of the photo.

What we learn is that images like this have a lot to tell us and a lot to hide. They don’t give up their secrets willingly. Without more information it is hard to know what we are seeing—a photographic ritual where Natives pose with Euro-Americans, one that is repeated over and over again.  Are we witness to an act of resistance or submission?  We hope that sharing this more complete version of the photo helps add to the list of known individuals in the image, makes the existence of the photo better known to scholars and the Ponca themselves, and hopefully will lead to more information on the Ponca’s 1922 visit to Washington and their petition to the President. Is it possible that it was related to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Charles Burke’s crackdown on Native dance? As Lucy Lippard reminds us, however, it is best if Euro-Americans “surrender the right to represent everybody.”  With that in mind we will share this image with the Ponca.

Further reading:

Brown, Donald, and Lee Irwin 2001. Ponca. In Handbook of North American Indians: Plains, Vol. 13, part 1, edited by Raymond J. DeMallie, pp. 416-431. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Howard, James H. 1965. The Ponca Tribe. Bulletin No. 195, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Lippard, Lucy (editor). 1993 Partial Recall: With Essays on Photographs of Native North Americans. New Press, New York.

Paul, R. Eli (editor). 2016 Sign Talker: Hugh Lenox Scott Remembers Indian Country. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Scott, Hugh Lenox 1928. Some Memories of a Soldier. The Century Co., New York.

Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Young, Gloria A., and Erik D. Gooding 2001. Celebrations and Giveaways. In Handbook of North American Indians: Plains, Vol. 13, part 2, edited by Raymond J. DeMallie, pp. 1011-1025. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

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