Veteran of the day | Horace Poolaw, United States Air Force veteran

Growing up in Mountain View, Okla., Horace Poolaw was fascinated by photography from an early age. He left school after sixth grade, then apprenticed with a photographer named George Long while still a teenager. With Long, Poolaw learned outdoor photography and darkroom techniques. When Long sold his studio to John Coyle, Poolaw studied portrait photography with him.

As a photographer, Poolaw has taken many pictures of his tribe, the Kiowa, doing everyday activities like holding parades, fishing, or attending weddings. When a group of natives from the Anadarko region started the American Indian Exposition in 1930, he became its official photographer. He documented Aboriginal pride and the cultural transitions experienced by the Kiowa. According to a page on the 400 Years Project website, his work firmly rejected the idea that the only two choices available to Native Americans were to be traditional or assimilated.

Poolaw enlisted in the Air Force in 1943. According to a 2014 article in the magazine of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, his children recalled that he had trained as an aircraft mechanic and that he went to California. He was then sent to Colorado to learn the art of aerial photography. Poolaw was then stationed for most of the war at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, where he taught bomber crews how to use cameras to document their bombing missions. While in the Air Force, he also befriended a fellow Kiowan, Gus Palmer Sr., who later appeared in several Poolaw self-portraits in native costume.

After his honorable discharge in 1945, Poolaw returned to Mountain View and attempted cattle ranching, as his photography job was not enough to provide a stable income. Later he took a job near Fort Sill as an aircraft mechanic until a car accident in 1957 prevented him from continuing his work. He continued to capture images of Kiowa tribesmen, especially veterans like himself. His son Robert “Corky” Poolaw later served in the Marine Corps.

Although his work did not become widely known during his lifetime, Poolaw’s photography has since gained an active following. His exhibition “War Bonnets, Tin Lizzies and Patent Leather Pumps: Kiowa Culture in Transition 1925-1955” toured the United States in the 1990s, and in 1992 his work was featured in an exhibit at the National Museum of History in Washington, DC His collection has also been presented to the National Museum of the American Indian. His grandson, Thomas, who is also an artist, considers his grandfather’s work an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

“The more I work with his photographs and think about it,” said Poolaw’s daughter, Linda, “I wonder if photographing [Veterans] wasn’t enough – he had to be in there. He wasn’t like some of these guys, like those who lose a leg, who are warriors. But these people affected his photography.

Poolaw died in January 1984 at the age of 77.

We honor his service.

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