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Patt Rall, Bemidji Pioneer, Published April 18 2013

Hakkerup American Indian portraits go on display in Bemidji

BEMIDJI— Old photos and glass plates lay abandoned, dirty and dusty, for years before being found one day by David Cooper in his parent’s photo studio at 406 Beltrami Avenue.

The photographs belonged to an émigré from Denmark, Niels Larson Hakkerup, who set up his studio in Bemidji around 1900 – eventually operating studios in three locations within the town. In 1908, a fire at the 113 Third St. studio destroyed much of the work of the then renowned Hakkerup, who was considered to be one of the leading portrait photographers of American Indians.

Hakkerup composed his portraits with a painterly eye, using light to focus the eye on beadwork, clothing and hair styles. The photos in a collection to be unveiled Thursday at the American Indian Resource Center include members of the Leech Lake and Red Lake Nations.

Cooper’s parents, Aza and Miriam, purchased the Hakkerup studio on Beltrami Avenue in 1946. The photographic plates were found in the rubble left by Hakkerup after the sale. The Cooper Studio had on display four of the original photos by the man whose work is on record at the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress Collection of American Indian Photographs, Minnesota Historical Society and the Beltrami County Historical Society.

The exhibit at Bemidji State, which includes 22 large photos and several smaller prints, taken between 1900 and 1915, will become part of the permanent art collection at the American Indian Resource Center.

Former president of BSU, Jon Quistgaard, is friendly with school-mate David Cooper and spearheaded the effort to have the photos mounted for display. He also asked his friend if he would donate the photos to the university, specifically to the IRC.

Local framer Mark LaFond was commissioned to build the frames and supervise their placement in the exhibit. The black and white prints show a part of the history of Ojibwe leaders in this area who lived during the great migration from Europe to these lands.

The picture of the man the people called Chief Bemidji, and for whom the town is named, is well known. As an added bonus, an original glass plate of Chief Bemidji that can be illuminated with a switch will be on display.

Dominating the exhibit are photographs of Leech Lake elder John Smith. Smith, who died in 1922 at a reputed 137 years of age, was born before the existence of the United States. He saw the first French fur traders and by the time he passed away, the land had been transformed through logging, mining, and the growth of America.

“He lived through the French, British and American regimes at a time when the Ojibwe and Dakota people were sparring for the land,” said Anton Treuer, Ojibwe professor at BSU. “You look at this deeply wrinkled, weathered face and you just wonder what it was like to see all that transformation in one person’s life time.

“A photograph is more than just a pretty picture, it is a window into history.”

The public is invited to attend the opening reception featuring Jon Roemer, a flute player gifted in the music of Native American culture. David and Kathy Cooper will be the honored guests for their donation of the collection. Bemidji State President Richard Hanson will be on hand to formally accept the gift, and Treuer, executive director of the IRC, will host the reception.

“We really appreciate this gesture throughout the native community,” said Treuer, “and the Cooper family for entrusting us to exhibit the work for the benefit of all people; native and non-native.”

Treuer feels it will provide opportunity for people to understand more deeply the first people of this land. The photos provide insight and also raise questions about who were the first people of this region; how they experienced life and what were they thinking.