What if you could see the world through the eyes of an American Indian photographer? How would their perspective differ from outsiders who often portrayed them in stereotypical or exotic ways? Richard Throssel was a Cree photographer who had a unique connection to the Crow nation and captured the life and culture of the Crow people with respect and intimacy. As we celebrate National American Indian Heritage Month this November, let’s take a closer look at his remarkable work and legacy.
Richard Throssel was born in 1882 to an English immigrant father and a half-Cree mother. Raised in Washington state in a small hops farming community called Roy, located just south of Puget Sound, Throssel’s journey as a photographer began in an unexpected way.
In 1902, at the age of 20, Throssel moved to the Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana, near the Wyoming border. His decision to move was driven by practicality rather than artistic aspirations. Suffering from rheumatism, Throssel’s doctor advised him to seek a drier climate. Fortunately, his older brother, Harry, had recently taken a job on the Crow Reservation in the Indian Services office. Harry offered Richard a home and a job in the same office, providing the opportunity for a fresh start.
Shortly after his arrival at the Crow Reservation, Throssel purchased his first camera and began teaching himself the fundamentals of photography. He walked into a world filled with art and creativity, as the Crow people were renowned for their superb craftsmanship and artistic expression. Their distinctive and technically excellent beadwork adorned clothing, personal accessories, horse gear, and military articles. The Crow presented themselves impressively, with a strong sense of national identity, even showcasing their artistic talents in the construction of elegant and graceful tipis.
The Crow people have a remarkable history. Their beautiful and abundant homeland allowed them to thrive, and their territory once extended across much of present-day Montana and Wyoming. However, as white settlement encroached upon their land, protecting their homeland against invaders became a constant struggle. The Crow became renowned for their military skills and courage, adapting their traditional warfare tactics to defend their land and survival.
Unlike many other tribal nations, the Crow recognized early on that their survival meant cooperation with the most powerful nation pressuring them: the United States. They foresaw the extermination of the buffalo and the inevitable arrival of cattle grazing on Crow lands. Consequently, they aligned themselves with the U.S. government, becoming scouts in battles against their tribal enemies, the Sioux and Cheyenne.
This was the world Throssel entered as a young man with dreams of being an artist and photographer. Settling down on the reservation, he married, had two children, and was eventually adopted into the Crow Tribe in 1906. His adoption likely stemmed from practical considerations, as American Indians were each allotted pieces of land on the reservation and having more tribe members increased the likelihood of retaining land ownership.
Throssel’s journey as a photographer took a significant turn when he encountered Edward Sheriff Curtis, a prominent photographer documenting American Indians for his 20-volume work, The North American Indian. Observing Curtis at work and witnessing the results was a revelation for Throssel, who still considered himself an amateur photographer.
Curtis befriended Throssel, and through their relationship, Throssel acquired new photographic enhancement and composition techniques. By 1907, just two years after their initial meeting, the influence of Curtis became evident in Throssel’s work. His photography took on a more romanticized look at Crow life, infused with a deep appreciation for the cultural richness and spiritual significance of the Crow people. Throssel’s images captured the nuances and beauty of Crow life, exhibiting a level of intimacy and personal connection rarely seen in photographs of American Indians.
Throssel’s photographs became a virtual census of the Crow people at the turn of the century. His lens preserved the past, connecting older generations to the future as he documented elderly war chiefs like Medicine Crow and the emerging leaders such as Barney Old Coyote, Sr., who would later advocate for the preservation of the Crow Reservation.
In 1909, Throssel contributed to Edward Curtis’s work by providing an image and description of the Northern Cheyenne Massaum ceremony, one of the rarest and most sacred ceremonies of the Crow. Throssel’s images of this ceremony marked the first visual record, as the government had banned it at the time. He was privileged to document such a significant cultural event.
In 1911, Throssel and his family left the Crow Reservation, and he opened his own photographic studio in Billings, Montana. This marked the first time he marketed his work under his own name. His business relied on his personal collection of nearly 1,000 images captured during his time on the reservation. He marketed his Curtis-style images under the title “The Western Classics.”
Throssel’s journey extended beyond photography. He delved into politics, serving as a member of the Montana State Legislature in 1924 and 1926. He also pursued marksmanship, becoming Montana’s secretary to the National Rifle Association and an award-winning marksman in rifle matches. Tragically, at the age of 51, Throssel passed away in 1933 from a heart attack shortly after arriving at the National Guard Camp.
Despite his short life and relatively brief time on the Crow Reservation, Richard Throssel left an enduring legacy. Through his photography, he compiled a vast visual record of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne, capturing a crucial period in their history as they adjusted to reservation life. His images bridged the generations, preserving the past and inspiring future tribal leaders to embrace their heritage. Richard Throssel’s remarkable work continues to serve as a testament to the cultural richness and resilience of the Crow.
Post contributed by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.