Definition of disinformation:
False information deliberately and often covertly spread, in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth (according to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary).
What thoughts go through your mind when viewing these photographs? Do you find them beautiful? Interesting and intriguing? Romantic and dreamy? Peaceful and serene?
How about stylized and stilted?
All of these impressions might coexist when looking at portraits of Native Americans, taken by photographer Roland Reed (1864-1934) at the beginning of the 20th century. He was genuinely interested in American Indians, even living with and photographing the Ojibwe on their Minnesota reservation for two years, but his pictorialist style of photography interpreted his subjects in a certain way, by staging scenes with props and artifice, rather than documenting their actual lives and reality.
Roland Reed’s idealized art represents the core of a seminal and challenging exhibit, “[Dis]information,” which opened at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum in the spring of 2019. Co-curated by Native American Gregg Deal, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, and by Leah Davis Witherow, the museum’s Curator of History, it attempts to raise awareness of how Native Americans were depicted through a white lens, how these photographs presented a version of native life that no longer existed, by pigeonholing the people portrayed, and by implying that they were part of America’s past, and not of its present, or its future. With this problematic characterization Indigenous peoples take issue, as they are very much alive and part of America today. While Roland Reed might have been well-intentioned, his oeuvre is yet one more bitterly ironic example of the way in which the same nation, that killed or confined the First Americans on reservations, began to romanticize them not long after expelling them from their ancestral lands.
In contrast to Roland Reed’s problematic images, Indigenous photographer Vicki Eagle presents fellow Native Americans, all of them students at Denver University, in the manner of their choosing, without artificial setting or attire. Each portrait is accompanied by a short biographical sketch, each poignant in its own right. I have chosen to share two.
Alexis writes: “I attend the University of Denver, where the mascot is the ‘Pioneers’ and the founder is John Evans [former Governor of Colorado Territory, and responsible for the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, in which hundreds of peaceful American Indians were killed by Colorado militia in cold blood, despite having been assured protection]. Every day I see the words ‘Pioneers’ and 1864 plastered everywhere. Seeing these things is a constant reminder that I am not meant to be on this campus. Instead of letting it bring me down, I stay resilient and ensure that I make my mark on campus. I am not afraid or ashamed to embrace my Native identity because I know every day I walk on campus I am breaking the stereotype and making my family, community and tribe proud.”
Taylor says: “ I’m sure I made John Evans, founder of the University of Denver, turn in his grave knowing that an indigenous female is thriving in this institution. Being a Pueblo woman, I have defied all the odds just being here in college. The statistics will say that I’m a drug addict, an alcoholic, dropout, victim of abuse, missing, and even murdered. I’m blessed to say I’m NONE of those things. I am thankful to receive education and the opportunities it has given me for a better future, so that I can go back home and give back to my people. I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams. Sincerely, A Future Native Female Lawyer in the making.”
A collection of wet-plate images completes the exhibit. Self-taught North Dakota artist Shane Balkowitsch, with his project Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective, aspires to obtain portraits of 1.000 Native Americans. As with Vicki Eagle, his models choose in which way they want to be depicted, many of them opting for traditional apparel.
Despite repeated attempts to integrate and assimilate Indigenous Americans and to eradicate their native language and traditions, and despite the near-complete loss of their homelands, many continue to cherish and celebrate their legacy and heritage. 573 federally recognized tribes exist in the United States as of 2019. About 2.9 million individuals identify as American Indian or Alaska Native alone, and 2.3 million do so in combination with one or two more races (2010 US Census data). Most live off reservations and are our friends, our colleagues, and our neighbors. The portrayal of Native Americans in still and moving pictures, in commercials, and as sports mascots has engendered hard-to-break stereotypes and prejudice in the American psyche, but Native America and Native Americans are infinitely more complex than Hollywood ever allowed, and have their own version of history to tell.