“SIOUX DANCE COSTUMES” BY S. W. ORMSBY.
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This photograph was made of Assiniboin and Upper Yanktonai Sioux people at Wolf Point Agency, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Montana, by S.W. Ormsby, 1898-99. The Assiniboin are among the least-photographed of all tribal people in the United States. This important series is one of the earliest extended collections. S.W. Ormsby, employed at the agency, was also an amateur photographer. Little is known of his life. He was at Wolf Point by 1898, when he copyrighted a few of his images. Chief Wets It, who appears in two photos of the series, traveled with his family and some friends to Omaha for the Trans-Mississippi Exposition during August-October, 1898. Wets It’s portrait by the Rinehart-Muhr studio while in Omaha appears elsewhere in this catalog. Ormsby's series at Wolf Point Agency was made either just before the Assiniboin group departed for Omaha, ca. July 1898, or in the summer following their return. Many of these photographs were not properly fixed, and so are sometimes light and somewhat discolored. Nevertheless they are rare and important.
5 x 7 3/4- inch toned gelatin silver print. “Sioux Dance Costumes” in neg. at lower left. While the Upper Yanktonai Sioux share the Fort Peck Reservation, these men appear to be Assiniboin from the community at Wolf Point, where Ormsby was located. Since Wets It, who is prominent in other scenes is absent here, the date may be 1898, while he and his family were in Omaha at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition.
The tribal warrior societies of the 19th century were men's clubs which had both military and social aspects. When the reservation system was imposed upon them, and their military function was precluded post-1876, the clubs continued but became focused on their social aspects of feasts and dancing. In the same period the Grass Dance, which had been developed by the Ponca and Omaha at mid-century, was franchised from tribe to tribe across the plains, often with enormous purchase prices including whole herds of horses, for the rights to use the songs and specific elements of costuming, such as feathered dance bustles. Ormsby's caption may indicate that the Assiniboin had acquired these rights from their Upper Yanktonais neighbors, so to them it was the "Sioux Dance." In similar fashion, the Oglala at Pine Ridge called the ceremony the "Omaha Dance," to indicate whence they had acquired it. A curious aspect of this group is that none of the men is wearing any eagle feathers in his roach headdress. The process of purchasing rights to the society was incremental, in order to maximize profits. It appears that the Assiniboin had not yet acquired the full complement of costuming privileges.
A remarkable uniformity in height documents the tendency to marry within the tribal group. The single giant, at left, may have been captured as a child from another tribe and adopted, a very common practice.
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- Slightly light. There’s a diagonal vertical crack in the negative in the center.