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Gift of scanned negatives gives positive turn to Hopi Mennonite mission story

September 11th, 2017

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – For John Thiesen, longtime archivist at the Mennonite Library and Archives (MLA) at Bethel College, as well as Bethel co-director of libraries, this past spring break brought a career high point.

Thiesen made a trip to northern Arizona to the Hopi Reservation to deliver a flash drive that represented “one of my top five archival successes,” he says – and that’s from a career that spans 25 years.

On that flash drive, in digital format, were about 2,300 photo negatives and 150 glass lantern slides from the collection of Heinrich (H.R.) Voth, a General Conference Mennonite Church missionary with the Hopi in the late 1800s.

“The MLA has an ongoing program of digitizing photos and other materials from our holdings,” Thiesen says.

“A few years ago, I decided to start scanning the H.R. Voth negatives. Many of them are from his various terms as a missionary in Orayvi on the Hopi Reservation, plus family and church activities from Kansas and Oklahoma. It represents probably one of our more important collections because of Voth’s ethnographic writing and research about the Hopi.”

Voth was a serious student of Hopi language and culture, projects he first undertook to better equip himself for mission work but which increasingly fascinated him for their own sake.He collaborated with museums and anthropologists from around the world who were interested in the Hopi, most notably with George A. Dorsey and the Field Museum in Chicago.

Voth, who died in 1931, left his papers and photos – which also deal with his first mission efforts among the Arapaho in Oklahoma – to the MLA.

From the vantage point of 2015, Voth’s ethnographic and anthropological efforts among the Hopi have not always left him in a good light.

“A lot of the photos relate to [Hopi] religious ceremonies,” Thiesen notes, “which is a controversial aspect because from a present-day perspective, he shouldn’t have taken the pictures.

“That makes the Hopi oral tradition about Voth negative – he intruded into the religious life of the community and made it public, in a sense, by putting some of the photos into anthropology publications, pamphlets and books.”

Thiesen began the process of scanning the Voth photo collection in November 2011 and finished in November 2014.

“The negatives are nitrate negatives,” Thiesen says. “[Nitrocellulose] was the original material used for both still photos and films. It’s highly flammable – if you’ve ever heard stories of movie studios burning up, it’s because enough of the film packed together can spontaneously combust. It also deteriorates more easily than later film such as acetate that came in the ’30s and ’40s.”

Voth started taking photos in 1893, continuing until about 1912.

“Once I was close to being done with the scanning,” Thiesen continues, “it seemed to be a good idea to make the photos available to the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, one of the places that would have the highest interest in them.

“I got in touch with the head of that office and the tribal archivist to ask if they wanted a set of these scans.”

Thiesen has communicated with Hopi cultural preservation staff at different times over the past 20 years, he says. The cultural preservation officer came to do research in the 1990s. Since then, staff have occasionally asked for scans of some photos for particular uses, such as a 2011 exhibit on Hopi agriculture.

When Thiesen called the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, “they were interested in having the photos,” he says. “Since there were about 2,300 photos total, that was about 100 gigabytes, so I put it on a 128g flash drive.”

Thiesen had originally thought he would have to use an external hard drive to store the scanned photos. When he realized a flash drive would work, “I could have mailed it,” he says. “but I thought it might be more respectful to go out in person and deliver them.

“The reception we got implies that was the right decision.”

Thiesen and his wife, Barbara Thiesen, another of Bethel’s three library co-directors, arrived at the Hopi tribal headquarters in Kykotsmovi Village, where the Cultural Preservation Office is located, at about 10 on the morning of March 23.

The archivist, Stewart Koyiyumptewa, met them to say there was “a slight change of plans.”

Instead of simply handing the flash drive over to Koyiyumptewa and the cultural preservation officer, Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, Thiesen learned the presentation was to be made in front of the entire tribal council, followed by lunch with the tribal chairman and then a second presentation to other tribal employees.

“So I had to give an impromptu speech to the tribal council at 11,” Thiesen says.

“It was basically explaining who H.R. Voth was and what was in the photo collection, and telling them the MLA was donating the set of scans to the Cultural Preservation Office.

“The chairman and the tribal council members were friendly and welcoming. There was a lot of interest, with people making comments and asking questions. It seemed like it was more than just an item to check off their agenda.”

He notes that Kuwanwisiwma and Koyiyumptewa also took the opportunity “to highlight [their office] and what they do – to get the tribal council to pay some attention to them.

“It seemed like a very positive experience,” Thiesen says. “People seemed to be happy to receive the set of photos.

“The tribal chairman, at the conclusion of our section of the council meeting, made a comment that others repeated: There’s the negative side of the Voth story, of him being intrusive in some sense or revealing too much of Hopi private religious activities, but the photos coming here are a more positive turn in that story, because they make available images of what life was like 120 years ago.

“Leigh also said, at the afternoon presentation, that they had used the Voth photos in some of the repatriation work they had done. When the Hopi were contacting museums, the photos provided a way to give a description of what they were looking for.”

Thiesen calls the experience “one of my top five archival successes. [The donation of the scans] was well-received by the tribe and makes the resource accessible to others.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2014-15 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2014-15. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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