Tributaries: A Confluence History Blog

Images of the Northwest: Part II “The Photo Man”

By Mary Rose

Okanogan Native women sharing their beautiful needle and bead work at their home. 1912 WSU Digital Library

Okanogan Native women sharing their beautiful needle and bead work at their home. 1912 WSU Digital Library

Many people are familiar with the classic North American Indian photography of Edward S. Curtis and Major Lee Moorhouse. Both men diligently sought to capture images that reflected the spirit, bravery and beauty of a proud people before they assimilated into the majority culture. The prevalent theme in their time — as legislated by the US Government and reinforced by the encroachment of white settlers—was that the cultures, beliefs and traditions of Native Americans would soon be confined only to history. Waving treaties, writing new laws, and brandishing a “democracy” that claimed native lands for themselves, Americans hoped to extinguish tribal practices and disenfranchise native cultures from the heritage of the United States.

Steamer North Star & passengers gathered for a real American celebration in 1912. WSU Digital Library

Steamer North Star & passengers gathered for a real American celebration in 1912. WSU Digital Library

A Japanese photographer in the Okanagan Valley between 1903 and 1913 held a very different perspective of capturing frontier life in the West at the turn of the 20th century.[i] Frank Sakae Matsura (1873-1913) came to the West by ship in 1901 and worked in Seattle and Alaska before he found his new home in 1903 in the Okanogan Valley as the only photographer in town. Matsura carried his camera everywhere to capture the ongoing development of Okanogan communities, including the irrigation project and construction of the Conconully Dam (1910), the orchards that benefited from the irrigation, the arrival of the first passenger car of the Great Northern railroad and the centennial flag-raising at Fort Okanogan in 1911.[ii]

Ranch hands branding cattle. WSU Digital Collections

Ranch hands branding cattle. WSU Digital Collections

Matsura paid keen attention to the workers and Indian communities – photographing them “on the job” as well as in formal portraits at their request. This was a departure from the methods of Curtis and Moorhouse, who usually created somewhat elaborate sets and orchestrated the costumes and props that accompanied the featured Native American, drawing from an array of tribal trappings and personal collections. Matsura knew many people in the county of 12,500 – mostly white homesteaders and ranchers but also those Native Americans relegated to the Colville Indian Reservation: the Okanogan, Colville, San Poil, Moses and Methow. In a 1998 interview with Tim Brooks of the Colville Reservation Museum, Mr. Brooks shared his grandmothers’ recollections of Frank Matsura: “Colville Indians called Matsura the ‘photo man.’” Brooks was asked how

Like many settlers, Native Americans flocked to Matsura’s studio for their photo portraits. Matsura was impartial to race or creed – he was also the only photographer in the county from 1903-1913. On the left is La-ka-kin, or Chiliwhist Jim at Matsura's Studio, ca. 1910.

Like many settlers, Native Americans flocked to Matsura’s studio for their photo portraits. Matsura was impartial to race or creed – he was also the only photographer in the county from 1903-1913. On the left is La-ka-kin, or Chiliwhist Jim at Matsura’s Studio, ca. 1910.

Matsura negotiated control of the pose and presentation evident in his photos: “..Indians were pleased that Matsura was preserving their history by recording them not only in their tribal dress (which he said they voluntarily wore to his studio), but also while wearing workclothes. They thought he captured a changing time by photographing them in settings that reflected the move away from teepees and into frame homes.”[iii] Apparently, they felt that Matsura’s photographs would help viewers realize the changes occurring on the Colville Reservation. The interview continued, “Mr. Brooks said further that they thought Matsura took funny photographs. . . . They liked him, though, so in Mr. Brooks’s words, ‘they went along with it.’”[iv]

Two women show off their lovely beadwork.

Two women show off their lovely beadwork.

Matsura's cardMatsura was trusted in the Native American communities.[v] He was allowed to photograph people on the reservations and many traveled to his studio to commission formal portraits. On those occasions, native people dressed in their finest with all personal “identifiers” of position and rank displayed:

Matsura photographed nearly every event in the communities. Here three couples sit for a photo at their reception on February 28, 1912. Two Plant brothers married two sisters, Violet & Winnie Barker. The Plants were miners at Ruby, a small mining town near Conconully. Unlike his sisters, the groom seated in the middle – Mr. Horace J. Barker – did not marry a Plant. He married Miss Eva Jordan.

Matsura photographed nearly every event in the communities. Here three couples sit for a photo at their reception on February 28, 1912. Two Plant brothers married two sisters, Violet & Winnie Barker. The Plants were miners at Ruby, a small mining town near Conconully. Unlike his sisters, the groom seated in the middle – Mr. Horace J. Barker – did not marry a Plant. He married Miss Eva Jordan.

feathers, necklaces, embroidered garments, bags, and beaded moccasins. Matsura’s photos are intimate and personal, implied by the closeness of the camera to the subject.[vi] It may be that their trust in Matsura stemmed from the idea that like a Japanese man, Native Americans had become “outsiders” in American communities. Most native people and Asian immigrants were denied citizenship and thus could not vote in their own communities. They could not freely marry whom they chose. Unlike all other western states, Washington legally allowed interracial marriages but communities strongly and publicly frowned upon them. Many white settlers believed in “blood purity” long after the American Civil War and that certainly included African American, Native American and Asian mixed marriages with white people.[vii] Undoubtedly, Matsura believed that he and Native American people shared politics and the lash of American prejudice.

The Japanese photographer in a far flung corner of the Northwest recognized the disparities of thought among his contemporaries. One essayist, ShiPu Wang, suggested that Matsura presented a “multivalent space constituted by the uneven, overlapping histories of indigenous adaptation and white settlement.” Matsura’s camera “vibrantly documented an alternative vision of this corner of the American West that continues to unsettle the national imaginary.”[viii]

Matsura & Chelsea Woodward pose outdoors with rifle and camera in 1908.

Matsura & Chelsea Woodward pose outdoors with rifle and camera in 1908.

The valley pioneer Frank Matsura shared little familial information with Okanogan townsfolk but biographer and photographer Tatsuo Kurihara traced his lineage in 1993.[ix] Matsura was born into the prominent and wealthy “Matsuura” clan who ruled the Hirado Domain (today’s Nagasaki Prefecture.) He was orphaned before the age of twelve and went to live with an uncle who ensured that the young man received a very good education. As a youth, Matsura befriended Kumaji Kimura, a Christian minister educated and ordained in the US, and Kimura taught the young prodigy photography and to speak English without an accent. Apparently, Matsura’s uncle approved of his adventures in the Okanogan Country and his photography business because in 1906, the family sent Matsura the funds to purchase an expensive camera worth $315 ($8,163.85 in 2017). The entire community was aware of his good fortune. The Okanogan Record commemorated the occasion: “It is an instrument of which anyone might feel proud. Now we may look for even better views than ever of our beautiful surrounding scenery.”[x]

Mining in the Okanogan Valley was shifting to farming in the early 1900’s when Matsura arrived.

Mining in the Okanogan Valley was shifting to farming in the early 1900’s when Matsura arrived.

Matsura succeeded in integrating himself as a pioneering hard worker in Okanogan County until his sudden death from hemoptysis in 1913 at age 39. Townsfolk believed him to be in good health, but Matsura had warned them that he had tuberculosus. The photo chronicler received the respect of many in his glowing obituary in the Okanogan Record:

“Frank Matsura’s place in Okanogan city will never be filled. He was a photographer of fine ability and his studio contains a collection of views that form a most complete photographic history of this city and surrounding country … He was always on the job. Whenever anything happened Frank was there with his camera to record the event … He has done more to advertise Okanogan city and valley than any other individual.”[xi]

Frank Matsura (1873-1913) in his Photo Shop & Studio.

Frank Matsura (1873-1913) in his Photo Shop & Studio.

His refreshing approach to the co-existance and continuation of Native American culture and lifestyles has long withstood the test of time.


End Notes:

All photos are drawn from the Washington State University on-line archive at WSU Digital Library: http://content.libraries.wsu.edu/cdm/search/searchterm/matsura%20scrapbook/order/nosort
[i] ShiPu Wang, Going “Native” in an American Borderland: Frank S. Matsura’s Photographic Miscegenation. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/t/tap/7977573.0005.103/–going-native-in-an-american-borderland-frank-s-matsuras?rgn=main;view=fulltext
[ii] Editor’s note: Fort Okanogan (also spelled Fort Okanagan) was founded in 1811 on the confluence of the Okanogan and Columbia Rivers as a fur trade outpost. Originally built for John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company, it was the first American-owned settlement within Washington State, located in what is now Okanogan County.[2] The North West Company, the PFC’s primary competitor, purchased its assets and posts in 1813. In 1821 the North West Company was merged into Hudson’s Bay Company, which took over operation of Fort Okanogan as part of its Columbia District. The fort was an important stop on the York Factory Express trade route to London via Hudson Bay.
[iii] Harpster, Kristin. Visions and Transgressions in Early-Twentieth-Century Okanogan: The Photography of Frank Matsura. Master’s thesis, Washington State University, Pullman, 1998.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] ShiPu Wang, Going “Native” in an American Borderland: Frank S. Matsura’s Photographic Miscegenation. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/t/tap/7977573.0005.103/–going-native-in-an-american-borderland-frank-s-matsuras?rgn=main;view=fulltext
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Editor’s Note: It’s always puzzled me that Oregon proudly touted John McLoughlin as the “Father of Oregon” but McLoughlin was married to Marguerite Wadin McLoughlin, a woman who was half Native American – an interracial marriage unrecognized by Oregon Law. It was not until 1951, that Oregon repealed its law prohibiting interracial marriages.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Kurihara, Tatsuo. A Man Named Frank: Memories of Sakae Matsuura, Photographer of the West. Tokyo, Japan, (Joho Senta Shuppankyoku,1993.)
[x] The Okanogan Record, 1 July 1904. ShiPu Wang, Going “Native” in an American Borderland: Frank S. Matsura’s Photographic Miscegenation. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/t/tap/7977573.0005.103/–going-native-in-an-american-borderland-frank-s-matsuras?rgn=main;view=fulltext
[xi] The Okanogan Record, June 20, 1913.
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