"Aliens" in America

How do photographs tell the story of citizenship in the United States? Sarah Lewis, guest editor of Aperture magazine’s summer 2016 issue, “Vision & Justice,” recently asked this question to her class at Harvard University.

John Elk was an alien. Likely a survivor of repeated forced removals, Elk renounced the Winnebago tribe, to which he was born, about a year before trying to vote in Omaha, Nebraska. But in Elk v. Wilkins (1884), the Supreme Court ruled that he was not a U.S. citizen because, like other “Indians,” he “owed immediate allegiance” to his tribe, an “alien” nation.

Though at the time naturalization laws varied by state, they often required indigenous people to reject their tribes and prove they had “adopted” the habits of “civilized life.” In citizenship ceremonies, men were directed to trade their bow and arrow for a plow, symbolically abandoning the “life of an Indian,” as Frank Pommersheim writes in Broken Landscape: Indians, Indian Tribes, and the Constitution (2009), for the “life of the white man—and the white man lives by work.” Naturalization thus entailed reconstituting oneself racially through rules and rituals that discursively linked citizenship, civilized-ness, and whiteness. The indigenous person thereby embodied the dual definition of an alien given by Ulrike Küchler, Silja Maehl, and Graeme Stout in Alien Imaginations: Science Fiction and Tales of Transnationalism: both a noncitizen foreigner and something inhuman, removed from civilization.

This dual meaning of “alien” is at work in Edward S. Curtis’s Maricopa women gathering fruit from Saguaro cacti (1907). Taken near Arizona’s Gila River, home to the Maricopa since the sixteenth-century, the photograph foregrounds three women and a towering saguaro. Curtis exaggerates the saguaro’s height by severing it at the top of the frame, making it appear so tall that it dwarfs the women by comparison. Land domination is central to notions of civilization and humanity in Judeo-Christian theology, but nature dominates the Maricopa in Curtis’s composition. Because these tiny-looking women are nameless racial types, their faces obscured by shadow, they stand in for all members of an “uncivilized” race.

In Maricopa women Curtis rhymes the women’s bodies with the saguaros behind them, and both the human figures and cacti are rendered in similar shades of gray. Their shadows are identical. And the saguaros’ grooves and ridges find both formal and textural equivalents in stripes and folds in the women’s dresses, patterns on their baskets, and streaks in their hair. By likening the Maricopa women to cacti, Curtis makes indigenous bodies appear as inhuman features of the landscape. But how can natives be foreign? Believing Native Americans to be a “vanishing race,” Curtis makes them foreigners from a distant time. He deliberately hides evidence of missionary contact, which had begun years prior, and as Brenda McLain and Tobi Taylor explain in a 2006 issue of American Indian Art Magazine, he uses the tropes of Pictorialism—a nostalgic, soft-focus style of photography—to portray “Indians as ancient relics fixed in a permanent, ahistorical past.”

Turn-of-the-century discourse linked citizenship, civilized-ness, and whiteness through narratives of the land: whites claimed it for the mission of manifest destiny, dominated it as an index of humanity, and even incorporated plows in citizenship ceremonies. Whites justified the disenfranchisement of indigenous people by representing them as aliens, inhuman foreigners—yet their age-old relationship to the land undercut assertions of their foreignness. By portraying Maricopa women and thousands of other indigenous subjects as extratemporal relics of the past, Curtis subverts indigenous people’s history and casts them as foreigners from a distant time, alien invaders of the present.

Ted Waechter is a senior at Harvard College.