Honored Fort Yates photographer was also a popular entertainer
Inforum columnist Curt Eriksmoen concludes the story of Frank Fiske, a legendary photographer, elected official and entertainer from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
FARGO — Thousands of photographs, primarily of Lakota Indians, were taken by a photographer who lived most of his life on the Standing Rock Reservation. It has been written that Frank Fiske created the most outstanding collection of Sioux photographs in existence. After his death in 1952, over 6,000 negatives plus 1,000 original prints were donated to the State Historical Society of North Dakota. In 1985, the South Dakota State Archives purchased many of the photographs from the North Dakota State Heritage Foundation.
Today, Fiske is best remembered for his extensive work as a photographer and has received awards for his work in that field. However, during most of his lifetime, he was best known for his work in the entertainment industry. He attained acclaim for his violin/fiddle playing and people were also very impressed with his theatrical productions and acting.
At the age of 11, Fiske began playing his violin as a member of the Fort Yates post orchestra. He then became fascinated with the fiddle music played by the bands at the local dance halls and, in 1900, started playing his fiddle for dances in the area. While still in his teens, he and his sister, Laura, formed a small orchestra that played for dances, parties, and similar occasions.
Fiske discovered another young talented violin player who shared the same desire to play hoedown fiddle music. After practicing together with John “Jack” Carignan Jr., Fiske realized the two produced music that people would appreciate. “Frank and Jack” started out playing at parties and dance halls and attracted large audiences wherever they played. When radio station KFYR in Bismarck began broadcasting in 1925 they booked the fiddle duo to perform on a regular basis on their station. Carignan was the son of the Indian agent at the Standing Rock Reservation. The duo broke up when Carignan decided to study law. He later became the judge of Sioux County.
Following his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1919, Fiske married Angela Cournoyer from Armour, South Dakota. Angela graduated from the Haskell Institute and the University of South Dakota where she majored in voice and the piano. She also received a degree from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Fiske now had another talented music partner, along with Laura and Carignan, for his performances. Angela was also a talented and creative writer who composed poems and wrote plays.
The Fiskes organized an acting group at Fort Yates made up of Native Americans who were interested in the theater. There was a Native American theme in all their plays and Angela was the playwright of some of them. In 1921, Angela wrote "The Cry of Lone Eagle," a three-act play that was a major success and was presented in many theaters and other venues in the Dakotas. In 1928, that play was entered into the national Drama League Playwriting Contest along with other plays from North Dakota and it won first place. It was then presented at the National Folk Festival in Chicago.
One of the people who attended a performance of the play was Edna LaMoore Waldo, the older sister of author Louis L’Amour, and she raved about it on a broadcast over the radio station KFYR. She said, “'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.” After talking about the beautiful costumes, she concluded, “I feel like crying from the housetops. Here’s what we have been looking for. This is real native art.” Waldo was impressed with all the actors, but the performance by one actor stood out. She said, “Frank Fiske’s own characterization of an aged Indian was one of the finest bits of acting I have seen in years.”
Besides running his photography studio, entertaining people with his violin/fiddle music, and producing and acting in theatrical productions, Fiske had other duties to perform. Sioux County was created in 1914, but because of prejudicial issues, county officials were not selected until five years later. In 1919, Fiske was appointed county auditor, a position he held for three years. In 1922, he was elected to serve a two-year term as county treasurer. Fiske also served as justice of the peace, chairman of the Sioux County Red Cross, War Bonds chairman, and Sioux County chairman of the Greater North Dakota Association.
In 1925, Frank and Angela Fiske, along with their young daughter Francine, moved to McLaughlin, South Dakota, a town of about 600 people. They returned to Fort Yates in 1928 and, the next year, Frank purchased the Pioneer-Arrow, the official weekly newspaper of Sioux County. Francine loved to work at the paper and, in September 1937, when Frank decided to take a prolonged vacation, he turned the publishing duties over to her. At the age of 16, Francine became “one of the youngest newspaper publishers in the nation.” When she was offered a publishing position for a magazine in Chicago the next year, her father sold the Pioneer-Arrow.
In 1933, Fiske published his second book, "Life and Death of Sitting Bull." As a boy in 1890, he "watched in awe from a trading store window as a wagon procession with a cavalry escort carried the disfigured body of Sitting Bull to Fort Yates." For over 40 years Fiske nurtured a fascination with the Hunkpapa leader. This book was filled with photographs that Fiske had taken, and one of the photos was of Red Tomahawk, the government police officer on the Standing Rock Reservation who shot and killed Sitting Bull. The North Dakota Highway Patrol had a silhouette image made of Fiske’s photo image and, in 1951, that silhouette became the Highway Patrol’s official emblem, appearing on shoulder patches, patrol cars, and highway markers.
During the 1940s, Fiske hosted a weekly radio program every Tuesday evening over KGCU, the Mutual radio station in Bismarck, and was billed as “The man of many talents.” His skill on the fiddle caught the attention of orchestra leader Lawrence Welk and the famous conductor invited Fiske to play with his orchestra. In 1950, Fiske received the North Dakota Art Award for his lifetime achievement as a photographer. On July 18, 1952, Fiske died of heart failure in a Bismarck Hospital.
After Fiske’s death, a large portion of his Indian photographs was deposited with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and over time, they become the property of that institution. In 1970, thanks to a gift from Harold Schafer, the historical society acquired Fiske’s voluminous photo library, manuscripts, and ledgers. In 2001, Fiske was posthumously inducted into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, the first photographer to receive that honor. In 2021, a book was released of his photographs titled "The Standing Rock Portraits."