Anthropology Magazine
Photo Essay / Reflections

Conflict on the Plains

An archaeologist’s photographic montages evoke the struggles of Plains Indian tribes in the 19th century and honor the sacred power of forgotten historical places.

The images in this series represent my interpretation of the struggle of Native Americans throughout the Plains Indian Wars between 1855 and 1890. During this period, the U.S. government actively sought to destroy or assimilate the entirety of Plains Indian culture.

The photographs are montages created from my original contemporary photographs of battlefield, military, sacred, and massacre sites, layered with 19th-century ethnographic photographs of Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, and Lakota peoples. The historic sites represented in these images include the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and Battle of Summit Springs site in Colorado; the Battle of Blue Water Creek site, Ash Hollow State Historical Park, and Fort Robinson State Park in Nebraska; Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana; Washita Battle National Historic Site in Oklahoma; the Wounded Knee Massacre site in South Dakota; and the Fetterman Fight site, Fort Laramie National Historic Site, and Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming.

These montages are not intended as historical documents—they are meant to evoke the feelings I experienced when visiting these places of conflict, struggle, and violence, and the sincere reverence I felt for the people who lived and died there. The sacredness and spiritual power I encountered at the sites was palpable, yet the experience remains difficult to put into words. Only through images can I express my sense of how the past imbues these places that endure today.

I am an archaeologist who works with Native Americans to address some of the most painful parts of our collective history. This project was inspired by watching the healing process between Euro-Americans and Native Americans—one that is happening, albeit too slowly. That process involves acknowledging our tragic past, coming to grips with its consequences, and finding a way to create a new future together. Perhaps these images will further inspire us to more closely examine the past and the necessity for healing in the present.

Thomas Carr is a Colorado archaeologist and photographer. He works with film and digital cameras, and has exhibited his work widely over the past 35 years. He has also lectured extensively on the history of photography and archaeology. In characterizing his own work, Carr states that “as a young photographer I found myself drawn toward making images of places with subtle indications of a past human presence. This led to my pursuit of a career in archaeology, which has allowed me to visit many significant historic sites and associated landscapes. I endeavor to document the essence of these places in visual terms.”

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