[Dis]information

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 American Indians 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.

Photojournalist Viki Eagle’s portraits of American Indian students at University of Denver

In contrast to Roland Reed’s problematic images, Native American 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.”

Wet-plate photographs of Northern Plains Native Americans by North Dakota photographer Shane Balkowitsch

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.

Native American Nations, circa 1590 through 1850 (pre-reservation period).

Native American land holdings today, representing about 3% of the contiguous United States.

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 American Indians 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.

36 thoughts on “[Dis]information

  1. Hello Tanja,
    Thank you so much for sharing. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking on so many levels. I know this is a deep and complex topic and am glad there are projects such as this to raise awareness. It seems that the so-called “majority group” in any nation have the tendency to filter through a biased lens. I only wish I lived closer – to view this exhibit in person.
    Best wishes,
    Takami

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post Tanja. Thinking about the photographer R. Reed, yes the images look staged and posed but in those days photography was not done by dashing young things with wizz-bang dslr’s. This was the way that mostly all images were achieved. It would be interesting to know if Reed had ‘intended’ his images to portray a false view.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your comment, Brian.
      I think the issue many American Indians have with this portrayal, regardless of Ronald Reed’s intentions, is that it represents the way White America saw Native America, and it did not allow for differences between individuals and tribes, and did not acknowledge that their way of life had been destroyed by the very people, who now looked at them in a romanticized way.
      If this sounds complicated, there is a reason. It is. But exhibits like these open the door to some overdue discussions.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I would suggest that all art is an expression of the views of first the artist and secondly the viewer. Are the photographs by Shane Balkowitsch any less staged than those by Roland Reed simply because the subjects chose how they wanted to be depicted? Probably the truest depiction is by George Catlin, 1796-1872, a painter who lived among the First Americans of the plains and depicted them as they were, good and bad. They were not the First Americans who live today. They were hunter/gatherers with their own world view including a fierce tribalism and belief in torture as a means of testing one’s self and one’s enemies. This is not to defend what was done to them, but just to point out we all risk imposing our current values on what we see both today and in the past.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment. I have the impression that several visitors of this exhibit have the reaction,”what’s the big deal?”

      It’s not really about the aesthetic appeal of the photos, but the fact that they represented yet another way how White America viewed and portrayed American Indians, because it fit their stereotypes.

      What I have learned from attending several lectures based on this exhibit is that many American Indians have struggled to find their identity, because of loss of lifestyle, language, and self-esteem, all of which is related to their (mis)representation throughout the ages. For that reason it is important that they will get the opportunity to show us how they view historical events, and how they would like to be represented.

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  4. I’d like to add to the discussion the fact that the photographers in the late 1800s and early 1900s known as Pictorialists presented all their subjects in ways we might describe as romantic, mysterious, or symbolic. Here are some examples. My nature is such that I’ve always resonated to Pictorialism and prefer its portraits to most of those done more recently. And I couldn’t help noticing that Shane Balkowitsch’s images are more like those of Roland Reed than of Viki Eagle.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for the link, Steve. I don’t think the issue is the style of photography (which is beautiful, I agree), but that it perpetuated those mythical notions that existed in the mind of Euro-Americans. Native Americans never had the opportunity to show how they viewed themselves, and how they wanted to be represented, and what dreams they had for their future.

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  5. We have the same issues in Maine and struggle with them on a regular basis. But Steve Shwartzman has made a valid point, and I was thinking the same thing as I was looking at the old photos. However, unlike Steve, I am not a huge fan of that style of photography, no matter the subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Karin. You make a very good point. I avoid taking photos of people, especially if I don’t know them, but I understand that many photographers feel differently. I think it’s very important to be respectful of people’s opinions.

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  6. Previous commenters have addressed the photographic style of the period. And the concept of historical revisionism could yield hours of interesting debate.
    But I think the key takeaway is how today’s Native Americans feel about these views of the past. Thank you for sharing the DU students’ opinions.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think all too often some people, whether photographers, painters or writes, had a tendency then to romanticize or mis-characterize not only Native Americans but most unfamiliar cultures in general. In this instance I agree with your statement that the indigenous peoples of the North American continent were never really allowed to present themselves as they were and were more easily depicted by the definitions European settlers created for them. Unfortunately now there is an unwillingness to understand “the other” and measure most everything according to one’s own definitions.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. One of the most troublesome aspects of today’s society is the demand that history be reworked, sanitized, or rejected in accordance with current convictions about how society ought to be ordered. Combine that with denigration of art that doesn’t conform to contemporary artistic ideals, or artists who don’t meet today’s standards, and the losses can be incalculable.

    There’s no question that Native Americans have been romanticized in any number of ways. Ironically, some of the most egregious examples involve contemporary wishing away of the more unsavory aspects of certain tribal cultures: particularly violence, sadism, and inter-tribal warfare. What the Comanches did to other tribes, for example, is well documented, and it isn’t pleasant.

    The power of the Comanche was broken c. 1870. It strikes me that the work of Roland Reed, coming so soon after the end of that bloody time, also could be seen as an attempt to portray Native Americans more positively than had been the case for decades.

    As for the photos themselves, I find them attractive: filled with an inherent dignity. Perhaps they were staged, but if you look at the photos of some famous frontier photographers, like Solomon Butcher in Nebraska, you’ll find a similar “staging” taking place when white settlers were having their photos made.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I appreciate your thoughtful comment, Linda. You make some interesting points. I think many people find the pictorial style of photography attractive, and nobody would deny that photographers throughout the ages have staged their subjects.

      I think one of the main messages this exhibit tried to send is that throughout most of US history, it was Euro-Americans, who wrote the history books, Euro-Americans, who took and interpreted photos, Euro-Americans, who came, saw, and conquered, and who rationalized their actions by portraying Native Americans as “savages,” or subhumans in order to justify genocide.

      I think it’s very concerning how little real accounting there is for the misdeeds committed against the original inhabitants of this continent, and how many prejudices still exist.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Another very thought-provoking post from you, Tanja, thank you for writing and sharing. The comments before me, from you and others, says it all. It is my hope that our future does not continue to repeat the bad of the past. I know that’s a big hope, but it can be done with true effort from the world!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hello Tanja,
    I am very moved by the comments and your answers to them. My wife is an American Indian Studies Student who is non-Indian. Through her studies, we no longer celebrate Thanksgiving.
    Through my further studies, a have found that the Native Americans have been done wrong over and over again. The pictures say it all if you look deep enough. To me, they do not say romance of the past. They say the Colonialism plague is still alive and creeping everywhere. The pictures show the fight is still alive, while the poison continues to flow through the waters, the land and the air we breath. This makes me very angry and hurt that people can do what they did and still continue to do it. I see it as Greed acting like a disease slowly killing the Earth while people continue with their day on their cell phone, their daily lives, rushing here and there and not noticing the damage that continues. Thank you for displaying art from the real perspective. It is in the eyes of the beholder, but art doesn’t always show the heartache or pain in the photos you posted.
    Eric “SadWolf”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Eric,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I think it’s challenging for many present-day Americans to accept responsibility for all the atrocities committed against North America’s first inhabitants. Collective guilt is a concept that is hard to grapple with, and so we invent excuses and justifications, and assert that we had nothing to do with the “sins of our ancestors.”

      Growing up in Germany, I had to come to grips with the genocide that happened during the Nazi regime. It took several generations for people to be able to finally talk about it, but many unresolved issues remain. I think the same is true in this country, and it’s those things under the surface, the ones that have been swept under the carpet, but never worked through, that continue to rear their ugly heads.

      I agree with your assessment of our destructive ways of life, and learning daily about the environmental devastation we continue to wreak makes me incredibly sad, and mad as well.

      Best wishes to you and your wife.
      Tanja

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