Indigeneity and Contemporary Native Photographers

Students in my ART 4763: Native American Art and Material Culture course regularly make use of interviews in the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program’s Oklahoma Native Artists Project. Last fall, I asked students to bring together interviews from the Project with interviews or artists’ statements published elsewhere, in thematic discussions that explore the range and diversity of Native artists’ experiences. Last week, Project director Julie Pearson-Little Thunder and I presented papers about the use of oral history in art advocacy and pedagogy at the Oklahoma Arts Conference. As these students’ essays make clear, oral history is a vital tool in understanding contemporary art and experience. In this post, Jennifer Johnson explores the concept of indigeneity, pointing to some of the ways in which artists subvert the colonial origins and implications of the term while celebrating their own contemporary indigenous identities.

The term “indigeneity,” according to the Oxford Dictionary, is defined as “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native.” The term “Native American” grew out of this definition. To rely on the past as a means of defining contemporary Native American existence and visual culture is problematic, however, and many Native artists for decades have been challenging this “time-locking” effect.

One way that Native artists challenge the perception of indigeneity is by utilizing media that is non-stereotypical. Two Native artists who use photography to challenge perceptions of Indigeneity are Richard Whitman (Yuchi) and Joi Arcand (Plains Cree). Richard Whitman’s Street Chiefs series of the 1970s juxtaposes imagery and language in order to draw attention to Native homelessness in Oklahoma; the irony of being “homeless” in one’s “homeland.” Joi Arcand’s 2009 Here on Future Earth series, the photography also juxtaposes language with city imagery, but instead replaces the English text on business signage with the Plains Cree language. For both of these artists, juxtaposing language and contemporary Native imagery challenges the false perception that Native culture is of the past and reinforces their personal experience of their own indigeneity.

Richard Ray Whitman, from the

Richard Ray Whitman, from the “Street Chiefs” series, photograph.

In an interview with Julie Pearson-Little Thunder for the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at OSU Stillwater, Whitman discusses his inspiration for the series. Whitman explains he was looking for his mother’s residence in Oklahoma City, and during the searching an individual called out to him in the Yuchi language. It shocked and perplexed Whitman how an individual from his community, and many others from other Native communities, could be homeless. “I think I was drawn to them because it was something I didn’t understand….How could you be homeless?…they came from a rural community. It was supportive, even though families – it was supportive. I didn’t understand it for the most part.” Whitman’s image of a homeless Kiowa man standing in front of a billboard that reads “Buy Oklahoma,” drove home the concept of the Street Chiefs series. This series challenges the perception that all Natives live in very tight, isolated communities that consistently support and nourish each other, presumably like the tribal culture of their pasts. Whitman’s Chiefs tell a very different narrative of indigeneity and the contemporary Native experience, one that highlights the struggle, loneliness, and poverty that many Natives, both on and off the reservations, live with.

Joi Arcand,

Joi Arcand, “Northern Pawn, South Vietnam,” from “Here on Future Earth,” 2010.

Arcand also juxtaposes language and imagery, but she does so in order to highlight her experience working at the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre, where individuals working in Native language revival influenced her. Arcand was distressed by her own (and her family’s) inability to speak their tribe’s language. “Language is culture,” Arcand states, “[t]here are far too many indigenous languages that are either extinct or endangered…. I realized that my own inability to speak the language means that in my family, the language is extinct.” By altering the landscape of the city with Plains Cree language, Arcand not only emphasizes the importance of having language function in society, but also, like Whitman, comments on a kind of irony; the irony of Native people’s tribal languages often being foreign languages. For artists like Whitman and Arcand, the concept of indigeneity cannot be one of the past, since these perceptions and stereotypes of the “time-locked” Native are clearly not the reality of many Natives.

Two other Native artists working in photography who are challenging the perception of indigeneity are Tom Fields (Cherokee/Creek) and Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner (Tlingit/N’ishga). Tom Fields’ photography of Native communities from the 1980s onward emphasizes images of everyday Native life that non-Natives might not be aware of. Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner’s Reinterpretation series explores the history of photography of Native subjects and reconstructs those images by presenting a mirror image of himself with his everyday objects and attire presented next to the original, “outsider perspective” image. These artists also incorporate their own personal experience and perspective as a means to illustrate what indigenous means to them and to challenge the stereotypes of Native existence, both past and present.

Tom Fields,

Tom Fields, “Bus Rider,” photograph.

In his interview with Julie Pearson-Little Thunder for the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program, Fields discusses his photography process and his intent as an artist. “[T]he Indian world, I grew up in it…it’s so vast, so big and complex…you can’t just generalize everything. I think as a photographer there is just one job I have….to show people a whole new perspective of whatever it is I am shooting….something they’ve never seen before.” This “new perspective” challenges what kinds of images are appropriate or interesting to capture about native communities. Fields states that for him the everyday moments in Native communities are “powerful” and “precious,” and its these images, not the conventional powwow and dance imagery, that truly represent the contemporary Native experience.

Da-ka-xeen Mehner, Da-ka-xeen Mehner, "Da-ka-xeen the Thlinget Artist," from the Reinterpretation series, 2007.

Da-ka-xeen Mehner,
Da-ka-xeen Mehner, “Da-ka-xeen the Thlinget Artist,” from the Reinterpretation series, 2007.

Artist Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner’s Reinterpretation series explores the history of Native photography, particularly that of the Case and Draper images taken in 1906 Alaska by non-Natives. “As I studied our visual history…I realized that it is an outsider view of my culture that I am left with. The….images are a perfect example of the constructed identity of Native-ness through the lens of the “other.” Mehner was inspired to reconstruct the images by taking a “contemporary image” of a Native individual (himself) in the same position and environment, then mirroring it next to the original, “other” image. This has the effect of the viewer, at first, not registering one Native as “modern,” and then being startled once the reality of the work sinks in. This series directly challenges the false perceptions that surround the “time-locked” Native and helps separate the stereotypes of the past and the contemporary reality of indigeneity.

The term “indigeneity,” functioning as a term meaning “native,” or “originating in a particular place,” both embodies and conflicts with the imagery of these artists, as the concept of contemporary indigeneity both accurately portrays history and contemporary life, while challenging those false “time-locked” perceptions. Often what determined the understanding of Native experience and culture came not from Native peoples themselves, but from non-Natives who often, instead of relying on Native peoples themselves, logged generalizations, speculations, and misinterpretations as facts. Many Native artists for a good part of the 20th and 21st centuries have been trying to correct this historical error. Artists like Whitman, Fields, Mehner, and Arcand are just a few examples of artists attempting to aid in this process, and their work effectively redefines what qualifies as indigeneity in the contemporary Native American experience.

Student essays posted on the blog are edited only for length and clarity. Did you enjoy this post? Check out earlier posts in this series by Bridget DixonZak Frick, and Roxanne Beason!

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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