Anderson: A glimpse of real, imagined history

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 7, 2011 - 6:29 AM

An old photo supposedly of the last caribou shot in Minnesota, while staged, still depicts an era gone by.

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This Roland W. Reed photo from 1908 of an Ojibway Indian claimed to be of the last caribou shot in Minnesota.

Found in the belongings of a woman who passed away recently in San Diego, a photo dated "1915" and purporting to show the last caribou killed in Minnesota has, by odd circumstances, ended up in the hands of Ed Rosenberger of South St. Paul.

Rosenberger, an avid bow hunter, received the photo -- a copy of the original -- from his daughter and son-in-law, who live in San Diego, who in turn were given it by the son-in-law's boss after his mother died.

In the photo's lower right corner, along with the date, is the photographer's name, "Reed." Accompanying the photo was a note from the photographer -- full name, Roland W. Reed:

"This shows an endless plain of snow with a dead caribou, the last ever shot in Minnesota, in the foreground," the note says. "A lone Ojibway is regarding the prey he has pursued so long. Behind the deer [caribou] and the Indian the snow is disturbed by tracks of hoof and snowshoe, but ahead and away back to the cold horizon the silent sheet of white stretches smooth and pitiless."

Born in Wisconsin in 1864, Roland Reed, who later moved to Minnesota and had studios in Red Wing, Ortonville and Bemidji, achieved considerable fame as a photographer of Native Americans, including those of the Great Plains and the Southwest, as well as in Minnesota.

The photo interested Rosenberger because of its reminder that caribou, not white-tailed deer, once were the abundant big game in northern Minnesota. Caribou disappeared following white settlement and the widespread logging that occurred across the central and northern parts of the state.

In the old growth forests, caribou had thrived. But deer were better adapted to the shrubs and saplings that emerged after the loggers moved on. Additionally, deer and caribou aren't compatible, because deer carry brain worm, to which caribou are highly susceptible.

Whether the caribou pictured actually was the last one killed in Minnesota is suspect. A Department of Natural Resources research paper from the 1970s places the end of caribou in the state around 1940. Regardless, it's likely that when Reed took his photograph, caribou were near their end here, if not yet entirely extinct.

Reed died in 1934, but he's far from forgotten. As it turns out, Kramer Gallery in St. Paul owns a couple hundred of his glass plate negatives, from which it reproduces custom photographs costing up to $1,500. Gallery owners and brothers Wes and Leon Kramer purchased the negatives in the 1970s from the son of a second cousin of Reed's.

Art historians categorize Reed's photographs with those of Edward S. Curtis, a frontier photographer of the same era who also was born in Wisconsin and later lived in Minnesota.

Like Reed, Curtis' passion was photographing American Indians. Also like Reed, Curtis' methodology has sometimes been criticized as staged, and his photos overly romanticized renderings of Indians the way whites thought they once were.

Ed Rosenberger's photo of the Indian and the caribou makes the point. In a letter Reed wrote to the editor of the Minneapolis Journal in 1923, Reed said the photo -- actually taken in January 1908 -- was recorded "in the barrens of northwest Minnesota between the north shore of Red Lake and the Rainy River ... in a hunt covering a circle of 50 miles."

Maybe so. But the Ojibway in the photo hardly appears worse for the wear of such a long hunt. Also, Wes and Leon Kramer say it's one of two or three versions of the photo Reed took, some depicting two Indians with the caribou, and each posed differently.

In a book to be published early next year by Afton Press entitled "Alone with the past, the life and photographic art of Roland W. Reed,'' Wisconsin author Ernest R. Lawrence describes Reed, like Curtis, as a "pictorialist" photographer whose intent wasn't necessarily to depict Native Americans as they actually were in the early 1900s -- reservation-bound and often living in poverty -- but as Reed and others believed them once to be.

In the end, whether the caribou in the photo actually was the last such animal killed in the state might be beside the point. So, too, whether the photo was more staged than a similar one taken today might be.

The photo nonetheless depicts a time in Minnesota -- real and imagined -- that no longer is.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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