Why do certain photographs have the power to express something vital—something unforgettable—about individuals, places, or events depicted, whereas others seem devoid of life? This problem is perhaps most obvious in images of indigenous people, in which the encounter between photographer and subject is inevitably filtered through cultural differences—and misconceptions bom of those differences.
They called my great-uncle Cavayo "Name Giver." He was the one who decided what to call the marvelous toys and dazzling inventions modern times brought to the Comanche in the last half of the nineteenth century. He looks out at me from a framed picture taken at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in November of 1907
Horace Poolaw (1906-1984) was the son of Tsomah, my greatgrandmother's sister, and Pohd-lok (pronounced "Pole-haw"), later Poolaw. Pohd-lok ("Old Wolf" in Kiowa) became known to the non-Indian community as "Kiowa George." He was a wonderful man, an arrow maker, the keeper of a calendar.
CREATING A VISUAL HISTORY: A QUESTION OF OWNERSHIP
In 1992 I guest curated "Message Carriers: Native Photographic Messages" for the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University.1 When invited, I could not accept without careful consideration of significant issues such as: ghettoization, opportunism (mine and theirs), and exploitation.
Zig Jackson began the series "Indian Man in San Francisco" when he moved from rural New Mexico to San Francisco. Humorous on the surface, the series refers to the devastating consequences of the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation program, in effect from the 1930s to the 1960s.
The La Jolla Indian Reservation, where I live, is but one of the seventeen reservations in North County, California, one of over three hundred federal reservations in the United States. It is a small reservation, as reservations go, yet quite typical of the contemporary Indian life-style.
If I touch the clouds it would feel invisible You will fall through. It feels soft It looks like a person laying down on the clouds It looks bluish-white and it tastes like water It would look like the wind and I heard it blowing fast It would taste like cotton candy and water It looks like it was blowing up and it was round.
On November 4, 1924, a wiry man armed with an eagle feather and a string of wampum dared to challenge the most forceful countries in the world by defining terms for indigenous survival into the twentieth century. Cayuga Chief Deskaheh presented an official proclamation from the Iroquois Confederacy to the League of Nations in Geneva, documenting our independence and sovereignty as recognized in treaties with the Dutch, British, and American governments.
From the top of the ridge I can see off in the distance a black form against the white arroyo sand. The first time I noticed it, my curiosity was aroused. I thought it had to be something—a blackened carcass or a large safe half-buried in the sand.
From water's broken mirror we pulled it, alive and shining, gasping the painful other element of air. It was not just fish. There was more. It was hawk, once wild with hunger, sharp talons locked into the dying twist and scale of fish, its long bones trailing like a ghost behind fins through the dark, cold water.
I saw my friend Ella with a tall cowboy at the store the other day in Shiprock. Later, I asked her, Who's that guy anyway? Oh, Luci, she said (I knew what was coming), it's terrible. He lives with me and my money and my car. But just for a while. He's in AIRCA and rodeos a lot.
The first image in this series, 1491, symbolizes the future that never was—what would have happened had we evolved without outside interference. 1492 represents the legacy of death. Entire nations were relegated to barren, desolate regions and deprived of their livelihoods.
I've heard of men in black robes who came instructing the heathen natives: outlaw demon shamanism, do away with potlatch, pagan ceremony, totem idolatry. Get rid of your old ways. The people listened. They dynamited the few Kake totems— mortuary poles fell with bones, clan identifiers lost in powder, storytellers blown to pieces settle on the new boardwalk running along the beachfront.
This is the story of the Tlingit National Anthem, a song that entwines our people with their past and keeps our ancient heritage alive. At potlatch ceremonies, Tlingit elders sing the anthem and tell how it came about—for many years in secret, for this ritual was long forbidden by the government—always passing the story on to the new generations.
Inuit elder and activist Mina Weetaltuk laughs as she talks about everything from growing up in northern Quebec and marrying a stranger when she was fourteen to the struggle to save her land. In 1994 the Quebec Hydro-James Bay project, which would have flooded hundreds of thousands of acres of Inuit and Cree territory, was scrapped when the government bowed to pressure by white environmentalists and Native groups such as Mina's.
You don't know I pretend my dumb. My songs often wise, my bells could chase the snow across these whistle-black plains. Celebrate. The days are grim. Call your winds to blast these bundled streets and patronize my past of poverty and 4-day feasts.
The romanticized American Indian warrior in full regalia, one of the most common and anachronistic stereotypes, is best exemplified by the photographic work of Edward S. Curtis. As portrait-sitters and performers at Wild West shows and World Expositions, those "real Indians" were no longer human beings but icons, symbols of a vanished race of savages.
In 1864, 8,354 Navajos were forced to walk from Dinetah to Bosque Redondo in southern New Mexico, a distance of three hundred miles. They were held for four years until the U.S. government declared the assimilation attempt a failure. More than 2,500 died of smallpox and other illnesses, depression, severe weather conditions, and starvation.
NANCY ACKERMAN (Mohawk ancestry) left her career as a field geologist to become a free-lance documentary photographer. She is a staff photographer for The Montreal Gazette, and is working on a long-term project portraying Native American women of North America.
Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are courtesy of, and copyright by, the artists. Sizes refer to exhibition format, with height listed first: p. 4 courtesy the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, London;
There are many people who helped to make Strong Hearts possible. For bringing an impressive array of artists to our attention, we are grateful to Jesse Cooday of New York City; Larry McNeil of Santa Fe, New Mexico; the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers' Association of Hamilton, Ontario; Yvonne Maracle, Director.