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Dakota Datebook

Frank Fiske, Photographer

 

Today is the birthday of Frank Bennett Fiske, born in southern Dakota Territory in 1883. Frank was just a baby when his father, George, left the military and tried his hand at ranching. The drought of 1888 brought that line of work to an end, and the following spring, George and Louise Fiske moved their family to Fort Yates, where George got a job as a civilian wagon master for the Army.

As a boy, Frank herded cows for local ranchers. He also collected beer bottles to sell across the river in the thriving “sin city” of Winona. Among his customers was a legendary saloon-keeper named Mustache Maude. As he got a bit older, Frank signed on as a cabin boy for Missouri River steamers.

From the beginning, Fiske’s surroundings had an indelible impact on his life: the river, the plains, the people. The Lakota/Dakota children with whom he attended school became lifelong friends who would influence a great portion of Fiske’s later work.

Fiske found his true passion while working for a photographer named Stephen Fansler. When Fansler failed to return from one of his travels in 1900, seventeen-year-old Frank convinced the commanding officer at Fort Yates to let him set up his own studio. It was just the beginning; over his lifetime, Fiske produced nearly 8,000 photos, mostly of Native Americans. Ultimately, he created the most outstanding collection of Sioux photographs in existence.

However, photography didn’t pay the bills. So, Fiske continued working on river steamers during the spring and fall when shipping was at its zenith. Fiske married Angela Cournoyer, great-granddaughter of Forked Horn, a Yanktonai Sioux chief. The two had met a number of years earlier, but neither was yet ready for marriage, but after WWI they reunited and were married on his 36th birthday.

While he never got rich from his photography, Fiske was recognized for his Indian portraits by the American Artists Professional League, which added him to its Honor Roll in 1950. Frank Bennett Fiske died in Bismarck at age 69 in 1952, and was interred next to his parents at St. Peter's Catholic Church cemetery at Fort Yates. A large portion of his Indian photographs now belong to the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

Sources:

Rolfsrud, Erling Nicolai, Extraordinary North Dakotans, Alexandria, Minnesota: Lantern Books, 1954

“Frank Bennett Fiske,” North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, May 6, 2004, http://www.northdakotacowboy.com;

"Fiske, Frank Bennett,” North Dakota Visual Artist Archive, http://www.state.nd.us/arts/artist_archive/F/Fiske_FrankBennett.htm.

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