FARGO — As a boy, Frank Bennett Fiske watched in awe from a trading store window as a wagon procession with a cavalry escort carried the disfigured body of Sitting Bull to Fort Yates.
Fiske had been let out of school early that day because of the enormity of the event, which happened in 1890 when Dakota settlers feared the Sioux were preparing for an uprising.
“An old Indian, on his pony, moaned a death song, and as they passed the store, the women wailed a sad accompaniment, while an escort of mounted policemen in blue uniforms rode along in grim silence,” Fiske wrote years later.
Young Fiske, in fact, had once met Sitting Bull, who came to the home of his father, the civilian wagon master for the military fort on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. William Cody, famous as Buffalo Bill, also had visited the Fiske home.
Ironically, Cody was sent to Standing Rock by the army on a mission to try to persuade his old friend Sitting Bull, who had toured with his Wild West Show, to surrender peacefully. But the mission was abruptly cancelled, the meeting never happened, and Sitting Bull was killed in a gunfight that erupted when Indian police agents tried to arrest the Hunkpapa Lakota leader, who had led the Sioux and Cheyennes at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Those boyhood experiences left indelible impressions that would influence Fiske’s long career as a frontier photographer in North Dakota and South Dakota.
Fiske, who was born in 1883 at Fort Bennett in South Dakota, where his father had been stationed as a soldier, took portraits of soldiers and their families at Fort Yates and, more extensively, the Sioux of Standing Rock.
Over the years, Fiske and his work have been largely forgotten, known mostly to historians and art collectors. Now, thanks to former Fargo resident Murray Lemley, a recently released volume of the photographer’s work, “The Standing Rock Portraits: Sioux Photographed by Frank Bennett Fiske 1900-1915,” will introduce a sample of the striking photographs to contemporary audiences.
As a photographer, Fiske returned repeatedly to Sitting Bull’s grave on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. He also photographed several of the Indian police officers involved in the fatal arrest, including Red Tomahawk, the officer who shot and killed Sitting Bull when the Indian leader balked at being taken into custody.
Fiske’s portrait of Red Tomahawk would become the model for the silhouette profile of an Indian warrior wearing a headdress that adorned North Dakota highway signs for decades.
Fiske used his camera to document the people and events at Standing Rock, photographing powwows, rodeos and gatherings of all kinds. He also made richly detailed studio portraits in black and white that captured a proud way of life that was fading before his eyes.
His portrait subjects included survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, including One Bull and Rain-in-the-Face, whom Fiske photographed as old men.
Around the time of Fiske’s birth, the Standing Rock Sioux were forced to abandon their roaming pursuit of buffalo, confined to the reservation and prodded to become farmers, ranchers and tradesmen. The transition was still unfolding in the early years of Fiske's photographic career.
One photograph, taken in 1917, shows a citizenship ceremony at Fort Yates. A man is shown shooting a symbolic “last arrow” into the air while a group of men, arrows in hand, wait their turn. After shooting their arrows, the men then put their hand on a plow, gestures to symbolize the life they’d left behind and the new life they were to adopt.
His portrait subjects, many of whom Fiske had known for years, stared at his camera with the sober formality that was common in the photographic portraiture of the time, but also with a frankness that grew out of their long association.
“Fiske’s photos show that he actually knew the people,” said Sharon Silengo, photo archivist for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, which owns Fiske’s collection of 8,000 images and his personal papers.
“They’re reacting to him,” she added. “That’s very important. These people knew him and they came to him, trusting him to take the best picture possible.”
Murray Lemley was introduced to Fiske’s photographic work years ago by a friend who then was the photo archivist for the State Historical Society of North Dakota in Bismarck. Lemley, a photographer and graphic designer, was immediately drawn to Fiske’s portraits.
For his studio work, Fiske used a large-view camera. Big glass plates coated with an emulsion served as negatives.
“So you had really sharp detail,” Lemley said. He admired the “immaculate clarity and evincing power” of the portraits.
The historical society took possession of many of Fiske’s images after he died in 1952. In 1970, thanks to a gift from Harold Schafer, the historical society acquired Fiske’s voluminous photo library, manuscripts and ledgers.
In the early 1980s, Lemley made a limited-edition set of portfolios, each containing 30 Fiske photographs, for the North Dakota Heritage Foundation to reward major donors.
“Ever since then I’ve wanted to do a proper art book,” Lemley said. The opportunity finally came when a chance meeting introduced him to the director of photography and artwork for the largest publisher in the Netherlands, where Lemley has lived for 18 of the past 24 years.
Lemley showed her some of Fiske’s work and “she fell in love with it,” he said. The photo book, which Lemley curated and designed, was published in the Netherlands in April and came out in the United States in September.
The historical society now has digitized 3,200 of Lemley’s 8,000 negatives, and archivists continue to make digital copies.
The archives are equipped with a walk-in freezer room, where the negatives — both glass plates and acetate — will be preserved and stored, Silengo said. Even glass negatives deteriorate, and many of the prints and negatives were haphazardly stored before they were acquired.
Descendants of Fiske’s photographic subjects still come to the archives in search of pictures of family members, Silengo said, and an exhibit of his work is on display at Sitting Bull College on Standing Rock.
A tragedy intervened to establish Fiske as the post photographer at Fort Yates. His boyhood ambition was to become a steamboat captain, and he worked as a cabin boy on the steamboats that plied the upper Missouri River.
Young Fiske also herded cattle for ranchers. In 1899, at the age of 16, he served as an apprentice for Stephen Fansler, who was given studio space at Fort Yates to photograph the soldiers and their families.
In 1900, Fansler’s wife died in childbirth, and he returned east to his family with his sickly infant daughter, who later died, abandoning his photo studio. At the age of 17, Fiske took over as the post photographer.
He was a contemporary of Edward Curtis, who traveled the country for 20 years, photographing American Indians throughout the west, a project bankrolled by J.P. Morgan and Theodore Roosevelt. Silengo and Lemley agree that it’s likely the two photographers met when Curtis visited Standing Rock for a period in the early 1900s. But there is no known record of any meeting.
Lemley suspects, in fact, that Fiske’s later work might have been influenced by Curtis, who followed the romantic, soft-focus “pictorialism” style. By contrast, Fiske’s approach was more traditional and straightforward. Starting around 1920, Fiske switched from glass-plate to acetate negatives.
Having lived almost his entire life at Standing Rock, Fiske became deeply interested in Sioux history and culture. He wrote two books, “The Taming of the Sioux,” published in 1917, and “The Life and Death of Sitting Bull,” published in 1933.
Because studio photography didn’t pay well — especially after the army abandoned Fort Yates in 1903 — Fiske turned to other occupations, serving for years as a Sioux County official and as editor and publisher of the Pioneer-Arrow, the weekly newspaper in Fort Yates.
Fiske’s early fascination with Sitting Bull stayed with him though. In “The Life and Death of Sitting Bull,” he wrote about watching the procession bringing the slain Indian leader and police officers into Fort Yates.
As a young man, after the military fort had been abandoned, Fiske and a friend slipped out of a dance, grabbed a pick and shovel, and dug up what they believed to be Sitting Bull’s grave, a ghoulish tale he described in his Sitting Bull book.
They found a decayed wooden coffin and pulled out pieces of rotten canvas, consistent with accounts of Sitting Bull’s burial, Fiske wrote. “Then we found the bones. I pulled out a nice, large thigh bone,” while the friend “felt around until he found a rib. These we took as relics, and what relics they were!”
Whether the bones actually belonged to Sitting Bull, whose grave was exhumed in the dark of night and relocated in 1953, is in dispute. Fiske wrote that later, because nobody would believe it was genuine, he reburied the bone.
Fiske was working on a never-published history of the Standing Rock reservation when he died in 1952.
Author's note: Almost 500 of Frank Bennett Fiske's Standing Rock photographs, including a portrait gallery, are available online from the archives of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.