Using History

“Greta Pratt's extraordinary photographs give us glimpses of people and places that stimulate us  to think about our history, not only of the great American West, but of the nation itself.  Her point of view is delightfully antic and provocative.  We want not only to enjoy the moment of our viewing, but also to study and ponder each photograph, challenged to find its larger meaning.”

- Howard Zinn

Some years ago, I visited Stickney, South Dakota to photograph their centennial celebration. The week of festivities concluded with a pageant recounting the tale of Stickney's one hundred years of existence. The whole town’s population, all 423 of them, arrived to claim a hillside seat on Vernon Peter’s farm, the prairie stretching before them as a stage.

The sun lingered close to the horizon as Lewis and Clark walked across the plain searching for the Pacific Ocean.  Behind them came women in sunbonnets and calico dresses beating pretend prairie fires with potato sacks, followed by missionaries dressed in black. During the intermission, the master of ceremonies told jokes and imitated Bing Crosby, while “Indians” dressed in homemade burlap costumes, their white faces painted to portray “otherness,” gathered in the background.

The second act brought war whoops and galloping horses to signal the demise of Custer, followed by prospectors, gold-sifting pans in hand, and cowboys driving cattle. The grand finale featured a favorite son, who had left Stickney to play in a lounge act in Fargo, returning to play “Great Balls of Fire,” on an upright piano. As the crowd went wild, clapping and cheering, a crop duster landed, carrying the surprise guest, a state senator.

Later that night in my hotel room, I wondered how these events expressed history. What would the Lakota Sioux who lived on a reservation outside of Stickney think of this pageant? What would their version of history say about the last one hundred years? I decided to photograph how Americans remember the past, in order to understand what is revealed by the events we choose to celebrate as history.

Initially I went to sites I studied in elementary school: Plymouth Rock, Jamestown, Gettysburg, Mount Vernon, the holy sites of American history. Everywhere I went, I found others exploring the past: retired couples in RVs, and families on vacation stopping at historical markers. I met Civil War buffs reenacting on ancient battlefields, and Vietnam veterans visiting memorials steeped in experience still fresh enough for tears. Everyone was trying to find a way to connect to the past.

I observed historic iconography everywhere and realized that its usage elicits a predictable response, valuable for selling merchandise, constructing identity, and invoking patriotism. I began to understand how the framing of the past evolves, reflecting the belief and ideals of the present.

These photographs are my quest to understand how I, and we, remember history. My intention with these images is to address how the culture and morality of today are reflected in what we commemorate about the past.


Greta Pratt, 2005