This Powerful Exhibit Shows How Indigenous Photographers Are Taking Native American Identity Back From The Colonizers

In the winter of 1993, when Geronimo was nearing theatrical release, Zig Jackson boarded a municipal bus wearing sunglasses, sneakers, and a full feathered headdress. A member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota, Jackson had recently left the reservation to pursue a career in photography. Documenting himself engaging in everyday activities, he dramatically upended the typical Hollywood trope that his people were history.

With Indian Man on the Bus, Jackson also confronted his own fraught art form. For many decades after its invention in the 1830s, photography was routinely used as an accessory to colonization. In the United States, photographers including Edward Curtis and William Henry Jackson portrayed Native Americans in traditional attire that situated them firmly in the past. Sometimes the historic garb was provided by the photographers themselves. Usually the photographers, even if sympathetic, deemed their role anthropological. As the frontiersman George Wharton James proclaimed, the goal was to capture “all that we possibly can… ere it is too late”.

Recognition of the perniciousness of documentary nostalgia was still marginal when Zig Jackson started to document himself on the city streets in 1993. Although mainstream American culture remains all too oblivious to the stereotypes created by daguerreotypes and photogravures, Indigenous photographers are now confronting the past with ever greater force. The extraordinary range of creative engagement is a central theme of Speaking with Light, an important new exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum.

The most direct confrontation can be seen in the spectacular portrait photography of Will Wilson. A master of 19th century photochemistry, Wilson has given antiquarian techniques renewed relevance by allowing his Native subjects to decide how they’re depicted. Some people choose to wear ancestral regalia as dazzling as anything documented by Edward Curtis. Equally powerful are the portraits of elders who opted to leave traditional garments in the closet. For instance, we see the Oklahoma state senator Enoch Haney, a former Seminole chief, dressed in a tie and jacket as if he’d just stepped out of the capitol building. The aesthetic contrast between his attire and the tintype vernacular scrambles stereotypes much as Zig Jackson’s performative street photography does, only from an inverse perspective.

Resistance against forces of erasure is sometimes referred to as survivance, a term intended to express that bodily survival is not enough, and that cultural continuity is equally essential. Wendy Red Star gives vivid expression to survivance in a project that began with her discovery of hand-painted cards cataloguing Crow artifacts in the Denver Art Museum. Red Star brought reproductions of these cards to the annual gathering of the Crow people and matched the objects to those worn by participants including members of her own family. In her Accession series the catalogue card reproductions are overlayed with her portraits, subtlely setting past as prologue.

As Red Star has often eloquently argued, survivance is facilitated by restitution. Ceremonial objects can reconnect people with their ancestors, helping to heal the rupture of history. The same principle underlies Land Back, a movement to reclaim ancestral territory that Nicholas Galanin brings into the exhibition through a photograph of a sign for Indian River that has been supplemented with spray paint to become a placard for “Indian Land”.

Galanin contributes another work that resonates with Red Star’s even more profoundly: a photograph of an empty museum display case with the words Supernatural Spirits and Animals painted on the back wall. A sound recording of an auctioneer saying “fair warning” accompanies the image, evoking a time when Indigenous heritage was sold to the highest bidder and suggesting that it’s still happening today. However the fair warning comes across equally as an admonition to those who might participate in this marketplace, and the emptiness of the case can equally be interpreted as an indication that the spirits and animals truly are supernatural.

Their invisibility paradoxically affirms that they are as spiritually present now as they ever were. The photograph shows survivance to be as much about internal belief as what the outside world can see.

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