Resident photographer of the Standing Rock Sioux led a colorful and adventurous life
As a teen, Frank Fiske had his own photography studio, was the featured fiddler at dance halls, and, on occasion, assisted steamboat pilots
FARGO — One of the most adventurous and colorful individuals to live in North Dakota was a noted photographer who spent most of his life on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Frank Fiske arrived on the reservation while Sitting Bull was still there.
Besides Fiske’s work as a photographer, he was also an assistant steamboat pilot, newspaper editor, author, theatrical producer, lecturer, soldier in World War I, county auditor and treasurer, and adventurer. He was also a skilled violin/fiddle player who had his own weekly musical radio show. One of his good friends was Lawrence Welk who, on occasion, invited Fiske to perform with his orchestra.
Frank Bennett Fiske was born on June 11, 1883, to George and Mary “Louise” (Otter) Fiske at Fort Bennett, Dakota Territory. Fort Bennett was a military outpost located where the Cheyenne River flowed into the Missouri River, in what is now South Dakota. George was a soldier with the 11th Infantry stationed at Fort Bennett and Louise was a Pennsylvania-born woman of German ancestry.
When Frank was 7 months old, George resigned from the Army and acquired land along the Missouri River, near Fort Rice, that he farmed, and the young boy recalled watching the riverboats from a window in his home. For Christmas 1888, George gave his son a toy steamboat that he had made, and it became Frank’s favorite possession. He spent hours pretending that he was navigating the vessel on the river.
After successive years of crop failures, George sold his farm and, in 1889, relocated his family to Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Reservation. There, he found employment as a wagon master and supplemented his income by painting buildings at the fort and doing some barbering.
Fiske attended an Army post school at Fort Yates along with other white children. Most of the Native American children attended a boarding school. Fiske liked his teacher, a soldier at the fort, but sometimes the instructor did not show up because he was nursing a hangover. The white students were then transferred to the Indian boarding school, but they only lasted there for a few weeks because legend has it they were causing too much trouble. Census records show that Fiske only completed three years of schooling.
In order to have something to do, Frank helped herd cattle for families at the fort. George played cello for the post orchestra and, to get his son interested in music, he bought him a violin. Frank’s music teacher was a soldier at the fort who also played the violin for the orchestra. In 1894, at the age of 11, Frank joined his instructor and father and began playing violin for the post orchestra.
At the age of 14, Fiske got his first job outside of herding cattle when Grant Marsh hired him to be a cabin boy aboard the F. Y. Batchelor. His duties included washing dishes, making beds, peeling potatoes, and sawing wood into stove lengths. For the next couple years, he was kept busy during the summers serving as a cabin boy for Marsh and Captain John Belk. Fiske’s primary ambition was to become a riverboat captain, and he did assist the pilots on some trips, but with the arrival of the railroad, the riverboat business became a dying industry.
During the winter of 1897-98, when the rivers were frozen, Fiske went to work as a photography apprentice for Stephen “Dick” Fansler, the post photographer at Fort Yates. Fiske was a quick learner and, the next winter, Fansler offered to sell his business to the 15-year-old. Fiske turned him down because he still preferred to work on the steamboats while the rivers were ice-free. When Fansler did not return to the fort in 1900, the Army turned his studio over to Fiske.
One of the things that Fiske enjoyed doing in the evenings was hanging around the dance halls at Fort Yates so that he could listen to the music. Believing he could play the fiddle as well as those performing at the dances, he convinced dance hall owners to hire him in 1900. Fiske remained a popular fiddle player in the Fort Yates-Bismarck area for over 50 years.
Few teenagers experienced the kind of success and excitement that Frank Fiske had in the early 1900s. He had his own photography studio that he operated during the day, he was the featured fiddler at the dance halls in the evening, and, on occasions, he assisted the pilots of steamboats that transported people and cargo on the Missouri River. Much of those activities came to an end in 1903 when the Army post and fort were decommissioned and the soldiers left Fort Yates.
Believing that his photography business in Fort Yates was at an end, Fiske opened a new studio in Bismarck. When this proved to be less successful than he hoped, he returned to his old studio in Fort Yates in March of 1905. Fiske concentrated on taking pictures of many of the “old timers” at the fort, especially those who were tribal elders or served in leadership positions. Along with taking their photos, Fiske became fascinated about learning the history of the Lakota as seen through the eyes of active participants.
Needing to supplement his income, Fiske became an assistant riverboat pilot on the Missouri River in 1912 and was active in the river trade for five years. He served as an assistant to veteran pilots Marsh and Isaac P. Baker. It was at this time that he met Angela Cournoyer, who came to Fort Yates to visit her sister. Angela was the great-granddaughter of Forked Horn, a Yanktonai Sioux chief.
The two became romantically attracted to each other, but since she was a student at the University of South Dakota studying piano and voice, they decided to wait until she graduated to get married.
In the meantime, Fiske learned that William Butler, founder of the Butler (photography) Studio in Bismarck, had died and the studio needed a person with photography experience to work there. Fiske went to Bismarck and was hired to work with other photographers at the Butler Studio, and the experience of working with other photographers made him better at his craft.
Fiske returned to Fort Yates to resume his career at the studio and complete work on a book that he was writing about Lakota Indian history, based largely on stories told to him by old-timers on the Standing Rock Reservation. It began with the Sioux Uprising in Minnesota in 1863 and concluded with the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.
Fiske titled the book "The Taming of the Sioux" and dedicated it to “My Cante Skuya (Heart Sweet).” It contained many photographs that he had taken, and his good friend, Frank Zahn, provided many illustrations. In the 1930s and '40s, Zahn appeared in Western motion pictures, and from 1946 to 1959, he served as chief judge of the Court of Indian Offenses for both North and South Dakota. Fiske’s book was released early in 1917.
With the U.S. involved in World War I, Fiske wanted to go and fight the Germans, even though he was half-German. He traveled to St. Louis and enlisted on July 11, 1918, and was sent to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, where he served in Company D of the 10th Infantry. On Oct. 22, Fiske was transferred to Company A of the 41st Machine Gun Battalion in Fort Dodge, Iowa, serving there until his discharge on Feb. 11, 1919.
On his way home, Fiske stopped in Armour, South Dakota, where Angela lived. The two got married on June 11, 1919, Fiske’s 36th birthday. The married couple then established their home in Fort Yates and Fiske resumed his career as a photographer.
(We will conclude the story of Frank Fiske next week.)