SALT LAKE CITY — Carol Ormond knew she needed to write the book as soon as she saw the photographs.
“I have a background in photojournalism, and photographically, I could see that they were significant," Ormond told the Deseret News. "But my initial impression was that historically, they were priceless.”
These were not any old photographs. The collection, now housed at the Thunderbird Foundation for the Arts, consists of 116 images taken by John Hillers during the John Wesley Powell expedition. There are only two complete collections of the photos — one at the Thunderbird and one at the Smithsonian Institution.
The images represent a thorough documentation of the Southern Paiute Indians at the time Powell was exploring the Grand Canyon area, specifically during Powell's second expedition from 1871–1872. The Southern Paiutes were one of the last tribes to come in contact with European settlers and had subsisted for centuries in the arid landscape of southern Utah and northern Arizona.
A Wisconsin native, Ormond had heard of the John Wesley Powell expedition but had never learned about the Paiute groups that helped him along the way.
“I realized that John Wesley Powell had been made famous by his expedition down the Colorado River … but very little has been acknowledged about the part that the Paiutes played in (his) success,” Ormond said.
Ormond’s book, “The People: The Missing Piece of John Wesley Powell’s Expeditions,” (Git 'er Done Books, 226 pages) is well-timed for the 150th anniversary of Powell's first expedition in 1869. In the Numic languages generally spoken by the Southern Paiutes, they called themselves "Nungwu," "Numa" or “Numu,” which means “people” or “human beings,” according to Britannica.com. When asked why she used that as the title, Ormond’s answer was simple.
“One of my biggest hopes was that this group of people would be seen as individuals. The photographs present a very intimate look at individuals,” she said.
Paul Bingham, art addict
Thunderbird Foundation president and founder Paul Bingham has been instrumental in preserving these photographs. While on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Denmark, he bought a painting and sent it home. It's a habit he's continued throughout his life.
“It’s almost like an addiction you get for art,” said Bingham, who first got a job in San Francisco after graduating from college. “While a lot of people were putting the money they made in the stock market and places like that, I bought art.”
Twenty years ago, a colleague offered Bingham the 116 prints Hillers took along the Powell expedition. They didn’t seem like much, and Bingham planned to turn a profit by selling them one by one. However, Bingham said that when he began asking around about the value of the photographs, he got an unexpected answer.
“I started checking with a few people, including Nelson Wadsworth, who was a professor of early Utah photography at Utah State University, and he informed me that he thought this was the only known collection that exists outside the Smithsonian that has survived,” Bingham said.
Wadsworth was right, and that information convinced Bingham that he needed to guard the historical and artistic value of the images.
“I immediately said to myself, ‘You’re not going to sell (the collection), you’re going to keep it and put it in a public place for the world to see,’” Bingham said.
Bingham and his wife, Susan, have always been what he calls “historically inclined.” As fans of American West artist Maynard Dixon (and friends of Dixon's third wife, Edith Hamlin), the Binghams were thrilled when Dixon’s house came on the market in 1998. They bought it, restored it and put it on the National Registry of Historic Places.
When they got the Powell expedition photographs, the Binghams decided to use the historic Maynard Dixon house as the venue for their exhibition. They started the Thunderbird Foundation for the Arts in 1999 and have displayed Hillers' photographs at various times since then, including a new show that opens May 18.
Bringing the photographs to the world
Both Ormond and Bingham mentioned that while some of Hillers’ photos have been used to illustrate other history books, around 90% of them have never been seen outside the two museums that currently hold complete collections. And while museums are great places for art exhibits, Ormond acknowledges in her forward to “The People” that Mount Carmel might be as remote to people now as the Grand Canyon was in 1872.
The author hopes her book gives many more people the opportunity to see these striking photographs.
“One goal was to expand the audience and to preserve the story of the (Southern Paiute) people and their way of life at this time period," Ormond said. "Within 10 years after Hillers had taken these photographs, pretty much all of that no longer existed. The (old) culture was gone.”
The term "Paiute" does not refer to a single, unified group, but rather to separate groups of indigenous peoples who lived in California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Arizona and Utah. The Southern Paiutes still occupy areas in Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah. With the arrival of European settlers and American pioneers, the 19th and 20th centuries brought hard times for the Paiute people and, according to UtahPaiute.com, "their numbers, once in the thousands, dwindled to less than 800."
Ormond wanted to ensure “The People” has wide appeal — that it would tell the story of its subjects not as a dense history book reserved only for academics but for a broader audience. Ormond kept the images front and center, letting them speak for themselves with brief informational captions and the occasional quote from Powell’s or his associates’ journals.
Each photograph has a certificate from the U.S. Department of the Interior with information about the location, tribe and person pictured.
“There are stories and there’s information that’s attached to specific individuals,” Ormond said, adding that she hopes the intimate look at each person will help readers realize the similarities between themselves and the people in the photographs.
In addition to Hillers' photographs from the John Wesley Powell expedition, the Thunderbird is also celebrating the expedition's 150th anniversary with an exhibition of paintings from landscape artist Robert Goldman. Goldman recently retraced Powell's journey, following the artistic path of 19th century artist Thomas Moran, who joined Powell on his 1873 expedition.
"Wherever Powell traveled, during those years that he was (in the West), Robert has now made paintings, starting in Green River, working his way down to Lake Powell and all the way down into the (Grand) Canyon," Bingham said.
Forty of Goldman's pieces will be on display and for sale at the Thunderbird Gallery as part of the exhibition "A New Perspective."
The two shows — "The People: An Exhibition" and "A New Perspective" — both celebrate an expedition that, even 150 years later, is still a remarkable feat that brought attention to worlds the rest of the country knew nothing about, according to Bingham.Comment on this story
"(It was) a treacherous, very important historical event in the annals of American history, because this was the first time that that has ever been done."
If you go …
What: “The People” author Carol Ormond signing, lecture with artist Robert Goldman and opening night reception for 150th anniversary of the John Wesley Powell expedition.
When: Saturday, May 18, Robert Goldman lecture, 11 a.m., signing, 1 p.m., reception, 6 p.m.
Where: Lecture and signing at Old Rock Church, Mt. Carmel and reception at Maynard Dixon Living History Museum, 2200 State Street, Mt. Carmel
How much: free