By Mary Rose
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.
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]
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
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]
Matsura 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:
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]
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]
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]
His refreshing approach to the co-existance and continuation of Native American culture and lifestyles has long withstood the test of time.