December 06, 2009

Migrant Mother was Cherokee

Dorothea LangeDorothea Lange (May 26, 1895–October 11, 1965) was an influential American documentary photographer and photojournalist, best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange's photographs humanized the tragic consequences of the Great Depression and profoundly influenced the development of documentary photography.

Lange's best-known picture is titled "Migrant Mother." The woman in the photo is Florence Owens Thompson. The original photo featured Florence's thumb and index finger on the tent pole, but the image was later retouched to hide Florence's thumb. Her index finger was left untouched (lower right in photo).

In 1960, Lange spoke about her experience taking the photograph:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.

According to Thompson's son, Lange got some details of this story wrong, but the impact of the picture was based on the image showing the strength and need of migrant workers.

Florence Owens ThompsonThompson, a "full-blooded" Cherokee, was born Florence Leona Christie on September 1, 1903, on the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Her father, Jackson Christie, was an ex-convict who had abandoned the family before her birth. Her mother was Mary Jane Cobb, who married Charles Akman, a Choctaw, in 1905, with whom she raised Thompson near Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Iconic photo

In March 1936, after picking beets in the Imperial Valley, Thompson and her family were traveling on US Highway 101 towards Watsonville in hopes of finding more work. On the road, the car timing chain snapped and they coasted to a stop just inside a pea-picker's camp on Nipomo Mesa. As Jim Hill and two of Thompson's sons left to town to repair the radiator, which had also been damaged, Thompson and some of the children set up a temporary camp. As Thompson waited, Dorothea Lange, working for the Resettlement Administration, drove up and started taking photos of Florence and her family. Over 10 minutes she took 6 images.

Thompson ... claimed that Lange promised the photos would never be published, but Lange sent them to the San Francisco News as well as to the Resettlement Administration in Washington, D.C. The News ran the pictures almost immediately, with an assertion that 2,500 to 3,500 migrant workers were starving in Nipomo. Within days, the pea-picker camp received 20,000 pounds of food from the federal government. However, Thompson and her family had moved on by the time the food arrived and were working near Watsonville.

While Thompson's identity was not known for over forty years after the photos were taken, the images became famous. The sixth image especially, which later became known as Migrant Mother, "has achieved near mythical status, symbolizing, if not defining, an entire era in [United States] history." Roy Stryker called Migrant Mother the "ultimate" photo of the Depression Era. "[Lange] never surpassed it. To me, it was the picture … The others were marvelous, but that was special ... . She is immortal." As a whole, the photographs taken for the Resettlement Administration "have been widely heralded as the epitome of documentary photography." Edward Steichen described them as "the most remarkable human documents ever rendered in pictures." Later, however, the photographers came under sharp criticism for presenting the conditions of their subjects as harsher than they actually were.

It was only in the late 1970s that Thompson's identity was discovered. In 1978, acting on a tip, Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan located Thompson at her mobile home in Space 24 of the Modesto Mobile Village and recognized her from the 40-year-old photograph. A letter Thompson wrote was published in The Modesto Bee and the Associated Press sent a story around entitled "Woman Fighting Mad Over Famous Depression Photo." Florence was quoted as saying "I wish she [Lange] hadn't taken my picture. I can't get a penny out of it. She didn't ask my name. She said she wouldn't sell the pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did."

Lange was funded by the federal government when she took the picture, so the image was in the public domain and Lange never directly received any royalties. However, the picture and the attention it received gave a big boost to her career.
Comment:  So one of the most iconic photos in history was of a full-blooded Cherokee woman. Good to know.


Debbie Reese said...

You were right to put full-blooded in quotes earlier in your piece. Elsewhere, I've read she was "born in a tepee" on a reservation.

Was she really Cherokee? Or was she claiming to be Cherokee?

D said...

@ Debbie: I don't get your point. So since some random other webpages state that she was "born in a tepee", this means or implies that Florence Owens Thompson was lying about being Cherokee?

If she was indeed Cherokee, that would be beyond ironic... A very different type of Oklahoma 'migrant'- "Trail of Tears" anyone?!

D said...

Sorry, Debbie, I got it wrong: I thought only other silly websites wrote that, I did not realize that Owens Thompson herself said that. Here is an interview with her:

Oral History: Migrant Mother, Florence Thompson

D said...

That fact does then make it rather unlikely.

dmarks said...

Which fact?

D said...

The fact that Thompson herself claimed that she was a) a full-blooded Cherokee and b) born in a tipi. Those two don't go together.

dmarks said...

Got it. Although I have found documentation of Native using tipis deep in the Eastern woodlands, away from the plains, I've never seen anything that said that the Cherokee ever used them.

And beyond that, I doubt many, if any, Natives were still using tipis that late into the 20th century.

D said...

@ dmarks: Sorry, but under no definition would 1901 be "late into the 20th century". ;)

Here are some pics from tipis in the early 1900s:

Historic photos of tipis

Regarding traditional Cherokee housing:

"Summer houses were in the shape of a square or rectangle. Upright poles formed the framework. The outside was covered with bark, wood or woven siding coated with earth and clay. This type of construction with clay is called wattle and daub.

During the winter, some Cherokee lived in a smaller, circular, dome shaped structure that looked like a beehive or an upsidedown basket. It was partially sunken into the ground. This style of Cherokee lodge was called an asi."

dmarks said...

"@ dmarks: Sorry, but under no definition would 1901 be "late into the 20th century". ;)"

I misread her birth year. Thanks for the corrections.

I know what tipi's look like :)

Here is an image, likely from between 1890 and 1910, which shows what I am pretty sure are tipis, used deep in the woodlands, away from the prairies, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. I have also seen other such depictions. This seems to contradict the common claim that tipis were only used by Plains Indians.

The people in that Indian camp in the photo were either Odawa, Ojibe, Potawatomi, or combinations thereof.

Rob said...

I wouldn't take the "in a tepee" part of the story too seriously.

For starters, I imagine Thompson doesn't remember her birth firsthand. Someone presumably told her she was born in a tepee.

Perhaps her parents embellished the story of her birth to make it more colorful. Perhaps she was born in a tent and someone mislabeled it a tepee. Perhaps she was born in a lodge and called it a tepee for an interviewer. Or perhaps her people were visiting a nearby tribe that did use tepees.

Over the years, major newspapers did profiles and obituaries of her. Her children and grandchildren have spoken out. With all the information out there, I think someone would've exposed her if she were lying.

And why would Thompson have lied about being an Indian in the mid-20th century? She wasn't going to get government checks or casino payments. Most people of that era tried to downplay or deny their Native ancestry, not embrace it.

No one has disputed that Thompson was born in Cherokee territory. Her angular face reminds me a little of Will Rogers (Cherokee). Without more evidence, I don't see any reason to doubt her Cherokee claim.

Rob said...

Re Plains Indian tipis: It may be more correct to say Indians used tipis in the Great Plains and adjacent areas. Broadly speaking, in the Midwest.

The eastern shores of Lake Michigan aren't far from the Sioux territory in Minnesota. It doesn't particularly surprise me to see tipis there.

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Anonymous said...

I don't doubt she is of Cherokee ancestry somewhere down the line, but she is not 'full blooded' and I very much doubt either of her parents were either, unless it just meant they were on the rolls. As others have mentioned too, Cherokees didn't live in teepees, but maybe this was embellished for whatever reason or she didn't really know about Cherokee culture or traditions herself that much if the 'full blooded' ancestry was further down the line and went off popular belief that Native Americans wore headdresses and lived in teepees.