Biographies,  History,  Native Americans,  The Cowboy Chronicle

Looking Through the Life and Lens of Frank Fiske

This article was fun to write – wait until you learn the history this man saw!

The Cowboy Chronicle December 2023

Frank Bennett Fiske was an early inductee into the NDCHF. In 2001 he was inducted in the Arts and Entertainment Division for his extensive and noteworthy photography of the people of the Standing Rock Reservation. He was the first photographer inducted. Fiske’s work was mostly known to historians and collectors, but in 2021 a book with a 100 of his Standing Rock portraits was released, giving the general public a chance to see his extraordinary work. Fiske lived most of his sixty nine years on the Standing Rock Reservation. His remarkable photography was part of a truly extraordinary life.

A young Frank Fiske boosted himself up on that cold December afternoon in 1890 to get a good look out the trading store window. He could not have known then all the ways this day would be intertwined in his life, but at 7 1/2 years old he could grasp that this was a day of great consequence.  In the early morning of this day, Sitting Bull was killed in a melee resulting from his attempted arrest over the mistaken notion he was behind the Ghost Dance movement and its resistance to the U. S. government.  The young Frank Fiske had been sent home early from school and commotion was all around.  He watched the wagon approach with a cavalry escort.  Sitting Bull’s mutilated body, and the bodies of the Indian Police officers who were also killed, was in that wagon. Later he witnessed the rushed burial of the great Indian leader in a grave dug by military prisoners.  

Remembering the day an adult, Fiske wrote, “An old Indian, on his pony, moaned a death song, and as they passed the store, the women wailed a sad accompaniment, while an escort of mounted policemen in blue uniforms rode along in grim silence.”

The young Fiske had met the great warrior in a previous year, when Sitting Bull came to his family’s home to visit his father who was the civilian wagon master at Fort Yates.  In 1890 Fort Yates was an Army post and headquarters of the U. S. Standing Rock Indian Agency, which took in portions of both North and South Dakota.  As a boy he also met another famous figure, Buffalo Bill Cody, who visited with his father. Sitting Bull had agreed to be in Cody’s traveling Wild West Show and had developed a friendship with him.  This friendship, if things had gone differently, could have saved Sitting Bull’s life.  In late November, 1890 Cody was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation to get his old friend. Trouble was brewing and it was hoped Cody could get Sitting Bull to surrender to the nearest commanding officer and further problems could be avoided. For various reasons Cody and Sitting Bull never connected.

Frank Bennett Fiske was born in 1883 in the Dakota Territory when his father was a soldier stationed at Fort Bennett. Soon after his birth, his parents George and Louise tried their hand at ranching.  Persistent drought plagued those years and by 1888 the elder Fiske knew he had to do something else to support his growing family.  Fiske’s sister Laura was born in October of that year. George Fiske took a job as the civilian wagon master and moved his family to Fort Yates.  

Self Portrait of a young Frank Fiske

Fiske attended school with Indian children. They were his neighbors and playmates; he formed lifelong friendships with them and grew up listening to the stories of old warriors. He learned the violin and at 11 was a member of the Fort Yates post orchestra.  In his teens, Fiske and his sister Laura put together a small orchestra that played at dances and parties.  He spent his summers herding cows for local families and working as a cabin boy on the river boats which he hoped to work on as an adult.  He also worked as the apprentice to the fort’s photographer Stephen Fransler, and this is where he found his passion for photography. In late 1899 Fansler abandoned his studio after the death in childbirth of his wife. He went back East to his family with his infant daughter and never returned.  Fiske, then a few months shy of his 17th birthday, convinced the commanding officer at Fort Yates to allow him to take over the photography studio.  He took pictures of soldiers and their families, but mostly he photographed the people of Standing Rock. In 1903 when the military post of Fort Yates was shut down Fiske opened a studio in Bismarck, but it never took off the way he hoped, and he returned home to Standing Rock.

Even though he grew up with the Sioux, Fiske still felt he had much to learn and began reading everything he could find about the people, and interviewed any “old timer” on the reservation that was willing to talk to him.  In 1917 he published his book, The Taming of the Sioux.  The book included illustrations from many of his photographs and drawings by his friend Francis Zahn (Holy Star.) The book started with the early Dakota Sioux and ended with “The Sioux Indian of Today.” He included chapters on the death of Sitting Bull and the Battle at Wounded Knee.  By today’s standards much of what he wrote would seem condescending and lacking of true understanding, yet his love and appreciation of the people he chose to spend his life with also comes through.

In 1933 Fiske published another book, Life and Death of Sitting Bull that presented detailed information he learned from eyewitnesses and many of Fiske’s photographs. He sold the book from his shop. As a photographer Fiske made repeated trips to Siting Bull’s grave, and then there was a more clandestine trip.  Sometime after Fort Yates was abandoned by the military, Fiske and a friend left a dance and secretly dug up what he remembered as Sitting Bull’s grave. He describes this adventure in the book. They found a decayed wooden coffin, with decomposed bits of canvas inside.  He wrote, “Then we found the bones…what relics they were!” Whether or not he really had Sitting Bull’s bones was disputed, and at a later time Fiske reburied them. (In 1953 during a prolonged bureaucratic battle, Clarence Grey Eagle, a nephew of Sitting Bull, led  the removal of Sitting Bull’s remains and reinterred them in the southern part of the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota.)

A year after publishing his book The Taming of the Sioux, Fiske enlisted in the Army. He briefly served in WW1, but was never sent overseas. In 1919 he married Angela Cournoyer on his 36th birthday. Angela was the granddaughter of a Fort Union fur trader Joseph Picotte, and Chief Forked Horn of the Wildcat Band of the Yanktona Sioux.  She was related to Sitting Bull by marriage.  In 1921, their only child Francine was born. They both loved music; Fiske was an expert violinist and Angela graduated with a degree in music from the University of South Dakota and studied at the American Conservatory in Chicago.

In addition to the classical violin, Fiske later became captivated with “fiddle playing” and began playing fiddle music for dances in the area. Fiske met another musician who shared his love of the fiddle, John Carignan, the son of the Standing Rock Reservation Indian agent. The duo began to play at parties and dance halls, and soon attracted large audiences.  In 1925 the Bismarck radio station KFYR booked Fiske and Carignan to perform regularly.

Taking their love of music a step further, the Fiske’s organized a theater group at Fort Yates. Not  only were the actors Native Americans, all the  plays they put on had a Native American theme integral to the story. Angela wrote a number of the plays, and one of them, “The Cry of Lone Eagle”, was quite successful and played in other venues across the Dakotas. In 1928 Angela‘s play won first prize in the National Drama League Playwriting contest and was performed at the National Folk Festival in Chicago.  Louis L’Amour’s sister Edna, attended one of the performances and was captivated. “”The Cry of Lone Eagle was something so unique and beautifully written, so well-acted and so admirably staged… that it was in a class by itself….here is what we have been looking for.” She went on to say the performance of one actor in particular who played and aged Indian was, “one of the finest bits of acting I have seen in years.” That actor was Fiske.  In the 1940’s Fiske’s many talents were showcased in a weekly radio program he hosted on KGCU in Bismarck. The legendary Lawrence Welk was impressed enough to invite Fiske to play with his orchestra.

Fiske left Standing Rock and moved his family to McLaughlin, South Dakota in 1925. In 1928 he again returned home to Standing Rock. In 1929 Fiske purchased the Sioux County newspaper, Pioneer –Arrow. His daughter Francine worked at the paper with him, and when she was just 16 years old he turned the publishing over to her, making her one of the youngest newspaper publishers in the country. The following year he sold the paper when Francine was offered a job for a magazine in Chicago.  

Fiske had a variety of jobs outside his photography business which was often not lucrative enough to support his family. He would work on river steamers during the spring and fall to pay the bills when shipping on the Missouri was at its height. He served as the Sioux County Auditor, and was elected to a term as County Treasurer. He would also serve as Justice of the Peace, Chairman of the Sioux County Red Cross and War Bonds chairman. 

While Fiske had many endeavors over the years, it is his photography that has remained the most impactful of his work. Fiske documented through his pictures the people and events at Standing Rock during a time of great transition. He caught images of powwows, rodeos, ceremonies and gatherings. He made detailed studio portraits of the people. Some of these were survivors of the Battle of Little Bighorn.  He documented the years when the Native Americans were forced to abandon their old ways and learn to be farmers, ranchers and tradesmen.  One of Fiske’s photographs was of Red Tomahawk, Sitting Bull’s assassin, someone he was well acquainted with. This photograph was later used in 1923 to make the silhouette of the Native American on North Dakota’s highway markers until 2016, when the silhouette was replaced with an outline of the state. 

Over his lifetime Fiske produced the largest collection of Sioux photographs in existence. He took an estimated 8000 pictures. His photographs are not just remarkable because of their number.  The detail, power, and clarity of his photos are extraordinary.  His photos are also important because of their diversity: there is a wider range of dress and backgrounds in his work than of any other photographer of that era.

Frank Fiske died in a Bismarck hospital in 1952. His interest in the lives and history of the Sioux never waned. Fiske was working on his third book, a never published history of the Standing Rock Reservation, when he died.

The Standing Rock Portraits, released in the U.S. in 2021, is just a sampling of Fiske’s work. Rod Slemmons, American photography expert who wrote one of the book’s biographical sketches said of the portraits, “They show a proud people during a period of difficult and often painful transition. Through the glass of Frank Fiske’s negatives lies an abundance of information and understanding.”  Graphic designer Murray Lemley who selected the book’s photographs said, “You can tell by a lot of the photographs that he did have a rapport…these were people that he had known all his life….”  Sharon Silengo, of the State Historical Society of North Dakota adds, “Fiske’s photos show he actually knew the person…That’s very important. These people knew him and they came to him, trusting to him to take the best picture possible.”

The State Historical Society of North Dakota owns Fiske’s images, manuscripts and ledgers. Over 3000 of his negatives have so far been digitized. His photos are a view to the past of a great and proud people, and the challenging times they went through as their world transitioned. The work of Frank Fiske, with his unique perspective and immersion in the lives of the people of Standing Rock, is an incomparable and beautiful window to a transformative time in American history.

Frank Fiske References, Bismarck Tribune: Frank Fiske Dies Friday at Bismarck, July 18, 1952, Frank Fiske Rites Set for Tuesday, July 19, 1952, and Area Deaths: Angel Fiske, 91, Sioux Indian Spokeswoman, September 3, 1974,

The Taming of the Sioux, Frank Bennett Fiske, Bismarck Tribune Publishing, Bismarck North Dakota, c. 1917

The Standing Rock Portraits, Frank Bennett Fiske photographer, Frank Vyzralek and Rod Slemmons text, Murray Lemley graphic design, Terra Publishing Company, The Netherlands, first edition 2019

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