Native Amercian Indian

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"We Walk in Beauty" and "Images of Their Own?

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Gary Auerbach

"Images of their Own"

In the Smithsonian Institution's letter of appreciation found at the close of this book, the photographer Gary Auerbach is rightly praised for his artistry and mastery of his craft. Stunning and lush, rich in texture and vibrancy, and deftly composed, the alluring photographs presented here and in the limited edition of photogravures, reveal a compelling talent. But to me, the ultimate beauty of these images lies with Auerbach's subjects as well as his own gifted vision. The indigenous voice--an essential element notably absent in most images of Native Americans--is celebrated in this path-breaking, harmonic union of images and words.

As a librarian specializing in photographs of Native life and people, I have viewed thousands of images over the past twelve years. While studying the face of a handsome and beguiling Lakota Wild West show performer pictured in an early 20th-century studio portrait or while getting lost in the sparkling eyes of a Northern Cheyenne child as she plays with her toy tipi in a faded image taken in Montana, I've often wondered: What are you up to? What are you thinking? Has your family seen this delightful picture? What sort of life do you have? What are your thoughts of yesterday, today, tomorrow? Sadly, in the history of the photography of Native people, the Indian voice has been most striking for its silence. Indigenous people generally have been excluded except as subjects.

Created primarily for commercial markets and anthropological studies, their portraits often revealed more about the photographer's attitudes than they did about Native life and culture. Offensive, degrading, or simply inaccurate captions contributed further to the objectification of indigenous people and kept their real identities a mystery.

In her book about photography and the American West, Martha Sandweiss suggests that 19th-century photographs of Native Americans were "used to endorse a political agenda that involved a systematic attack on native cultures." [1] Susan Sontag, the late critic of contemporary society, is even more scathing in her assessment, claiming that the photography of Native Americans represented the "most brutal" and "predatory side" of photography. [2] And, describing the far-reaching impact of these attitudes, Rick Hill, a Tuscarora photographer and scholar who has written extensively about stereotyping in historic images, states it simply: "The camera photographed Indians but the viewer saw losers." [3]

Breaking with the past, Auerbach is one of the first photographers to invite his subjects to participate as full partners in the collaborative process of making a photograph. This innovative book is the poignant and successful result of that collaboration. Working with Ofelia Zepeda (Tohono O'Odham), a distinguished professor of linguistics and recipient of the MacArthur Foundation award (the "genius grant"), Auerbach crafted a series of interview questions for the photographic participants. I think you will agree with me that their responses, which are completely unedited, speak as loudly as the photographs.

Not surprisingly, many of their comments reflect cultural tradition, emphasizing the importance of family and how values are passed down from one generation to the next. For example, Ruth Benally's conception of her Dine way of life ("We Walk in Beauty") reiterates that given to the Navajo by their Holy People when they emerged into this world. She says, "I was born with it."

These individuals are also "proud to represent" their Native Nations, excited about having their portraits exhibited, and eager to contribute their diverse indigenous perspectives. They obviously enjoyed the experience. Why else would they offer such candid and personal glimpses into their lives?

The rich words and images published here are documents of family history, valuable to Native Nations and non-Indian audiences alike. They evoke treasured memories, elicit personal and cultural stories, and stimulate ideas. I applaud this heartfelt effort by both the photographer and the contributer-sitters--who were graciously, and finally, given the opportunity to represent themselves.

Jennifer Brathovde

(Sisseton-Wahpeton, Spirit Lake Sioux Nation)

Prints & Photographs Division

Library of Congress

[1] Martha A. Sandweiss, Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 215.

[2] Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1977), p. 64.

[3] Rick Hill, "In Our Own Image: Stereotyped Images of Indians Lead to New Native Art Form," in Exposure (Volume 29:1, Fall 1993), p. 7.

Native American Portraits

Native American Portraits, by Gary Auerbach, is a 20-page high quality catalogue produced for the one-year exhibition of platinum photographs at the Amerind Foundation Museum and Art Gallery. Included are 14 color plate images, with an introduction by Maricia Battle of the US Library of Congress and John Ware, executive director of the Amerind Foundation.

"We Walk in Beauty" Native American Portraits and Words, Photographed and compiled by Gary Auerbach. 88 pages with 44 duotones and 26 interviews. Representing 12 tribes of Native American People. Limited Edition of 300.

Bob Red Elk

Gary Auerbach

Do you have a specific memory that stands out in your mind when you were young?

“I remember living out in the country in a frame house where in the winter we traveled by horse and sled to the round dance hall where we did our social drumming and dancing. During those early years as an innocent child, isolation from the dominant society allowed for deep introspection into who I was before I started going to structured schools.”

How is your life different from your parents or grandparents?

“Like my parents and grandparents, I grew up adapting to rules of living from public school and Christian religion. During those early years I was distracted from practicing certain traditions and rituals but I was fortunate to have a father and mother who allowed me to return home at different times in my life to participate and learn ceremonial processes.”

What traditions from the past do you still continue to practice?

“Early in my life I did not realize that I was being imprinted by the behavior and example of my grandfather who in his own quiet way schooled me in what it means to be respectful. That is hard to retain when those around you are taught that competition and conquest are more important than the Christian golden rule. As a rule of thumb today, I strive to stay teachable amidst a world bent on self reliance through corporate global expansion. The old ways teach us the benefit of cooperation and peaceful co-existence, but it is hard to practice them when you have to live in two worlds.”

What was your impression on having your photograph taken?

“Gary Auerbach and I met at a Pow Wow in 1999 on the San Carlos Indian Reservation where he asked me to pose for him with his Edward Curtis-style camera equipment. Even though the finished photographs speak for themselves, I have to commend the photographer for the sensitivity and devotion he has shown in seeing his subjects as real people. In our fast moving world, the traditions of Native Americans often go unnoticed and it is people like Gary Auerbach and others that take the time to show the rest of the world that American Indians continue to make a place for themselves in a changing world.”

What do you see for the future? “Our forefathers still whisper to us through the spirits that when the “sacred hoop is mended” then and only then will man be able to overcome the prejudice that has been around for a long time. And again, I heard it once said that to ‘change the man is to change the world’ but it takes one, then two and then more to bring this to pass.”

Native name: Little Warrior
Given name: Gerald Robert (Bob) Red Elk
Date of Birth: December 3, 1946
Tribe: Dakota, Lakota, Nakoda (Assiniboine), Blackfeet
Maternal clan: Mother Earth
Paternal clan: Father Sky (Star People)
Year photograph was taken: 1999

Native Amercian Indians Photo Gallery

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