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‘A Likeness made From First Hand Witness’?: The Discursive Position of a Purported Crazy Horse Photograph

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posted on 2021-11-14, 05:21 authored by Russell, Grace Campbell

This dissertation is concerned with the ways in which photographs are discursively deployed and used in the writing of history. More specifically, it will consider how photos, and the historical, scientific, ethnographic and romantic discourses surrounding them, are used to erase or ‘make safe’ the traces of the radical resistances of dominated groups within colonial frameworks. The case explored here concerns the tintype photograph claimed as being of the Lakota chief and warrior Crazy Horse (c.1840-1877). Exhibited by the Custer Battlefield Museum in Montana, the claim that this photograph is of Crazy Horse is controversial. It is generally thought that no visual likeness of Crazy Horse exists; and his refusal to be photographed can be read as a practice of opposition to his assimilation into colonial narratives and accounts of American frontier history. In claiming the photo to be of Crazy Horse, the history of his resistance is rewritten and repositioned. This changes the way he becomes knowable and understandable within the contexts of (neo)colonial discourses and narratives, in which Native Americans are often relegated to the past, and appear either as casualties of the policies of Manifest Destiny, or as a romantic other which has been symbolically integrated into American mythic culture. This dissertation focuses on how the claim that this photograph is of Crazy Horse is made, and how the various associated cultural fields (photography, historiography, museology) are affected by, and play into, such a claim. This involves identifying the discursive processes and disciplinary mechanisms through which meaning is produced in relation to a particular cultural object. It considers the supposed photograph of Crazy Horse as an example of how history assigns significance to objects “in terms of the possibilities they generate for producing or transforming reality” (de Certeau, 1986:202), rather than as representations or reflections of reality.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Media Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970120 Expanding Knowledge in Languages, Communication and Culture

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


Schirato, Tony