"The photographs in this exhibition were taken by my grandfather, William Maxwell. His entire career was with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, working on Indian Reservations. He was an agency farmer at the Fort Totten Indian School on the Devil's Lake Sioux Indian Reservation from 1912-1926; worked at the Sherman Institute in Riverside, CA, in 1927; in Tuba City, Arizona, on the Western Navajo Reservation in 1928; and he was the Land Clerk at the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, North Dakota, from 1929 until his retirement in 1954."
Source: Written by Peggy Maxwell in The William Maxwell Photographic Collection (pamphlet). Published by the Minnesota Humanities Commission (Box 2, Folder 32)
The William Maxwell Photographic Collection consists of 574 photographs, the vast majority of which depict life at the Fort Totten Indian School and the Devils Lake Sioux Reservation between 1923 and 1926. Maxwell took numerous photographs depicting everyday life, including families, educational and government buildings, houses, events, roads and transportation.
As Peggy Maxwell (William Maxwell's granddaughter) wrote in the exhibition pamphlet The William Maxwell Photographic Collection:
"These images of the Dakota people are not comfortable. When I look into the photographs, I see a people who once lived where I now live, who were driven from their homeland, and were forced to adopt white ways quickly or die. They gave up their home lands in exchange for treaty rights which legally supercede state and federal law. These rights were to exist for 'as long as the moon shall rise, as long as the rivers shall flow, as long as the sun shall shine, as long as the grass shall grow.' These treaties have been repeatedly broken and the rights of the American Indian ignored.
We cannot go back in time, but we can look back to try to understand the history of the Indian tribes, and get a more balanced view of American history. As we move on, let us listen carefully to American Indian points of view. There is much we need to learn if we are to preserve this beautiful land for future generations, and to understand and respect the rights of the descendants of the original owners of these lands."
In that same pamphlet, historian Kent Nerburn noted that: "Maxwell was not a professional photographer and he did not have any purpose behind his photography other than to capture the people and lives which he worked. The photographs are posed, but not constructed. The people are wearing their everyday clothes and are shown in their everyday settings. There is no attempt to mythologize or to make a political statement about conditions on the reservation.
As photographs, they are like Maxwell himself - methodical, with a scrupulous attention to detail, and with no overt display of emotions. We do not know how he took them or whether he had the consent of the people he photographed. They stand unexplained, in silent testimony to their time."