Under the Spell
The day A.C. Vroman found his passion for Native American Culture

By Garrett Soden

From Pasadena magazine
IT WAS AUGUST 17, 1895. A brilliant sun blazed against the cloudless deep blue of the Arizona sky. Adam Clark Vroman, a trim man with a pointed beard, stood on the edge of the pueblo's dusty plaza, sweating through his long-sleeved shirt, bow tie, dark vest and trousers. He steadied his camera on its tripod. All the photographers had arrived early, claiming spots with the best view of where the dancers would appear. Now, in the early afternoon, people were everywhere: Hopi villagers and visitors from other tribes; white men in suspenders; a few ladies in ankle-length dresses. Dozens sat on the rooftops of the square adobes that surround the plaza, their feet dangling over the edge. Jostling for position among the other photographers gathered that day, there was little to indicate that this bookseller from Pasadena was any more than the amateur he claimed to be. Yet during the next ten years Vroman would create some of the most distinguished images of Southwestern native peoples ever produced.

Beyond the plaza the red-brown adobes crowded to the very edge of the mesa. Below lay a desert that stretched a hundred miles west to the Grand Canyon, east to the Chuska Mountains, and south to the Mogollon Plateau, rocky soil where the Hopi had grown corn and beans for more than a thousand years. It was hard for Vroman to believe he was only a few hundred miles from the shady streets of Pasadena. In fact, it was hard to believe he was in America. And in many ways he was not.

The Hopi had lived on this mesa top for fifty generations, developing and refining a civilization. Their heritage stretched back even farther: their ancestors, called by the whites the Anasazi, had come to this land more than two thousand years ago. Over the eons they had constructed the cliff dwellings as Mesa Verde and the massive cities of Chaco Canyon where seven thousand people once lived; they had built a road system that ran for hundreds of miles, developed weaving, pottery and jewelry into fine arts, and created irrigation systems that watered their crops. Their society was a complex network of relationships, of clan and of family; its belief system strong and its cycle of religious observance more integrated into daily life than nearly any in the Christian world. America was just a distant idea here; a word on a paper written in another language, far from the country of the Hopi.

Vroman's Pasadena was among the newest towns in that new country, America. This resort of first-rate hotels had sprung up only a few years earlier in the southern California foothills as a retreat for wealthy bankers and railroad magnets from the east. Vroman himself was from Chicago, and had come to Pasadena in 1892 hoping the climate would cure his wife Esther's tuberculosis. When it didn't, the couple traveled to her home town in Pennsylvania two years later. Esther died there within months.

Vroman returned to Pasadena to begin a new life. Selling his collection of fine books to raise the money, he and J.S. Glasscock opened a shop selling photographic goods and books. In a way, it was a book that had brought Vroman to the Hopi pueblo in the first place. Vroman had read Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson, and like millions of others he became fascinated by the lives of American Indians. Talks with his friend Charles Lummis, first editor of the Los Angeles Times and perhaps the country's best-known advocate for Indian rights, had deepened his interest. And then a friend had asked if he would like to come on a trip to witness a quite remarkable Indian ritual: the Snake Dance of the Hopi.

Anyone who knew anything of the Southwestern Indians knew of the Snake Dance. Vroman had seen photographs: dancers grabbing live rattlesnakes by the handful; painted priests of the Snake Clan holding serpents in their mouths as they danced. When the snakes bit, it was rumored, the venom had no effect. Vroman packed his view camera, a tripod, lenses, shutters, and dozens of fragile glass plates to capture this extraordinary sight.

IT IS HARD TO IMAGINE now how remote the Hopi and their land had remained throughout the nineteenth century, even into Vroman's time. Until 1869, when John Wesley Powell ran the Colorado for the first time, people imagined that somewhere before the Grand Canyon the river disappeared into a huge cavern, or fell thousands of feet over enormous falls. Large sections of the Southwest remained blank on the map. Isolated in this great expanse, the Hopi had been protected. In two centuries of occupation the Spanish had never succeeded in converting them, nor had they had much effect at all. Except for the occasional explorer, trader, or missionary, the Hopi had been largely left alone.

To reach the Hopi, Vroman and his friends had packed themselves onto a horse-drawn lumber-wagon. The road, such as it was, led them over rolling hills clogged with sagebrush and cacti. By the time their wagon brought them to the base of the Hopi mesas, it had been early evening, and the steep trail of broken boulders that led to the top was growing dark. One of their party, the two-hundred and sixty-pound Mrs. Lowe, couldn't make the hike: she was carried up the precipitous trail on a litter in the failing light.

The next day, waiting for the dance to begin, Vroman took some of his first photographs in the Southwest. He posed himself and his party in front of their host's pueblo, the exhausted Mrs. Lowe sitting in her floor-length black frock and bonnet, a huge fan in hand. He photographed the interior of the house as well.

Soon he ventured out into the streets of Walpi, where he took a photograph of three young Hopi girls accompanied by two men. From this first image, the difference between Vroman's approach and those of his contemporaries was clear: he saw the Hopi not as curiosities, but as people. This was no accident, as Vroman explained later:

    One of the best ways of ingratiating oneself to their confidence, I found, was to always sit down and try to explain the camera to them, then stand it up and look through it, pointed away from them, and have them look through and see the picture in the ground glass and, after all had seen, go out and let them see me standing on my head. [Vroman's camera was a view camera, which shows an upside down image in the viewfinder.] It was amusing to see their surprise when they would put the focusing cloth back and see I was not on my head. They would look again and then come out and smile and call others to look and then they would smile too. Mothers, babies, all had to go through it, and after I had shown them all I could they never refused to allow me to make pictures of them.

Of all the white photographers who traipsed in with cameras, evidently only Vroman had offered to get on the other side of the lens and let the Hopi take a look. By early afternoon Vroman had shot about twenty pictures; then he folded up his tripod, packed his equipment, and walked to the plaza in anticipation of the main event.

the Snake Dance, was actually the culmination of the Snake-Antelope ceremony, which had begun weeks before when the village crier had made the call:

    Ye dweller of the north arise; ye dweller of the west arise; ye dweller of the south arise; ye dweller of the east arise. In sixteen days people of Snake Clan will give their courageous, beautiful hearts. From now on, let no one hold anger against any person. With happiness and hope, let us go forward.

There had followed days of prayers, sacred singing, arrangement of the alters, and the symbolic marriage between the Snake Maiden and the Antelope Youth. On the twelfth day, and for four days after, the Snake Priests had gone to gather the reptiles. In the evenings, they entered the kiva, the Hopi's round spiritual chamber, where the non-public rites were performed. Here members of the Snake Clan sat cross-legged, knee-to-knee, while the snakes were released in the center of the singing men. They sat motionless as the snakes crawled into their laps and cradled arms.

ON THIS FINAL DAY OF THE CEREMONY, as the glow of dusk began to approach, long shadows fell across the plaza where the dancers, now entering, began their chants. The crowd grew quiet, and the line of photographers attended to their contraptions. Eyes glanced between the dancers and the kisi, the shelter built of cottonwood branches that housed the snakes. Later, Vroman described the scene:

    In comes Kopeli, the Snake Priest, followed by thirty-two others of the Snake Order. Their limbs and bodies are stained almost to a brown with some oxide, chins painted white with black and white lightening stripes on bodies and limbs. They . . . make four circles around the plaza, then line up facing the Antelopes, at kisi. For about ten minutes now they go through a chanting-like song, swinging their bodies to the left and right, their rattles in unison with their voices and an earnestness in their faces that shows beyond doubt that it is sacred to them. Louder and louder the chanting, until it is almost at the tops of their voices. Then Kopeli and one next to him joined with an arm around Kopeli's neck and danced (or jumped-like) to front of kisi and stooped down. When shortly they rose up Kopeli had a live snake hanging from his mouth, and together they turned and they danced around the plaza.

Vroman watched the rest of the ceremony with divided attention, changing the glass plates, aiming the camera, adjusting for the light of the setting sun, tripping the shutter, all the while absorbing the vision of these other-worldly beings, circling the plaza with snakes dangling from their lips and hands, to which they paid no more attention "than if they were so many pieces of rope."

Finally the snakes were returned to the center, then "gathered up in great handfuls" by the priests who sprinted down the trail to release them back into the desert.

Vroman left the Hopi mesas that season deeply moved. "I felt I could spend a year right there," he wrote later, "be one of them, and learn their ways and beliefs."

When Vroman returned two years later (the Snake Dance was held on alternating years) he did spend the better part of a year in the Southwest. He traveled to the pueblos of Zuni, Laguna and Acoma. That same trip he joined ethnologist Dr. Frederick Hodge for a harrowing climb up Katzimo, the Enchanted Mesa near Acoma. The Acomas told the story of their ancestors' original home on the rock, a legend most anthropologists of the time regarded as pure fantasy because the mesa's sheer, four-hundred-foot cliffs seemed to make it utterly inaccessible. The ascent required Vroman, who was packing fifty pounds of photographic equipment, to work his way up a 36-foot ladder propped precariously on a ledge that was nearly 300 feet above the desert floor. Once on top, the expedition found ample evidence of occupation: potsherds, arrowheads, and shell ornaments. Hodge theorized that the pueblo itself had been eroded away by centuries of wind and rain.

OVER THE NEXT EIGHT YEARS Vroman continued his photography of the Southwest. He shot the Snake Dance nearly every year, producing more photographs of this ceremony than any other Southwestern photographer. He visited the Grand Canyon, Walnut Canyon, the Petrified Forest, and Canyon de Chelly. But it was his images of people, not scenery, that was to be his enduring accomplishment. Ansel Adams called this work ". . . . some of the most magnificent portraits I have ever seen . . . ."

But Vroman's work was under-appreciated in his time. By the early 1950s his glass plates - more than two thousand of them - lay ignored in the basement of a county schools' building. It wasn't until 1953, when Lawrence Clark Powell, then Dean of the Library School at UCLA and a noted writer on the Southwest, was invited to write a pamphlet for Vromans bookstore's sixtieth anniversary that the photographs were rediscovered.

Reminded of Vroman's photography, Powell made a search and found the lost plates with the help of Hodge, who was by then director of the Southwest Museum. The plates were transferred to the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History and now reside in the Seaver Center for Western History Research. Vroman's reputation began to grow with the opening of a gallery of his work at the L.A. Museum of Natural History and the publication of Photographer of the Southwest: Adam Clark Vroman, 1856-1916, edited by Ruth Manhood, in 1961.

When his photographs once again came to light it was to the sudden appreciation of critics who saw in his work a sensitivity to what was, for Vroman, a foreign culture. William Webb and Robert A. Weinstein described this quality in their book Dwellers at the Source: Southwestern Indian Photographs of A.C. Vroman, 1895-1905:

    When we think about the Indian photographs of Adam Clark Vroman, something altogether startling is suddenly revealed to us: there are no pictures of inscrutable savages! And therein lies a profound difference from so much of the photography of his period. There is no sensationalism, no deliberate portrayal of squalor, no sentimentalism, no propaganda.

But Vroman's view of the Hopi was the exception. The year 1900 was a fulcrum for the Hopi people, on which their stable past was quickly tipped toward an unsteady future by the whites' strange leverage.

In the early 1900s, agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs forced the Hopi to comply with new mandatory education laws, raiding the pueblos and carrying children bodily to school. Government agents, believing that the ancient Hopi social structure was too chaotic, appointed some of the Hopi "governors," ignoring tribal tradition and creating rival leaders.

By 1906, the Hopi were divided into the "friendlies," who favored assimilation with the whites, and the "hostiles," who didn't. Fist fights broke out, families were split by the issue, and finally, a showdown was agreed upon in Oraibi: the losers of a day-long "push of war" would leave. At the end of the exhausting battle, Yukioma, leader of the hostiles, was pushed over the line. He and his followers left to found Hotevilla a few miles away. Ironically, these carriers of traditional Hopi culture were the ones forced out. The millennia-old unity of a people had ended.

Evidently, Vroman could not bear to see the barbaric treatment of the Hopi, and in 1904 he abruptly ended his visits to the Southwest. That year Vroman photographed his beloved pueblo people for the last time. In these photographs, factory-made clothing has replaced homespun. Where there were forty whites watching the first Snake Ceremony he'd attended, now there were hundreds.

Vroman was among the last to see a Hopi society not yet infected with the Americans' twin plagues, oppression and seduction. We are fortunate he took his camera. On his glass plates he has left us a lesson in respect for native peoples; images that evoke not our sympathy, but our empathy.

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Copyright © 2006 Garrett Soden