There are significant issues regarding photographing Native Americans. This is because photographers often strive to capture the stereotypical "Indianness," clinging to outdated images of Native Americans. As a result, photographs often only feature clichéd representations of Native Americans.
Despite being highly popular subjects for photography since ancient times, the true essence of Native Americans has often remained unrepresented, perhaps due to such circumstances. Between 1850 and 1900, during the intensification of conflicts between Plains Indians and the United States military, numerous photographs depicting "warlike" Indians were taken, contributing significantly to the perpetuation of the image of Indians as "savages." These photographs were used as propaganda to justify the battles and conquests of white settlers against Native Americans. While there are also stereotypes of exotic Indians portrayed in colonial literature and 19th-century romantic paintings, the majority of Americans considered them to be severely backward and barbaric heathens, hindrances that needed to be removed to better utilize the land for white settlers.
"Indians fighting for freedom" were often depicted in early photographs, but their defeat had become inevitable. The United States government extensively exploited the concept of "Manifest Destiny" as powerful propaganda, proclaiming that the defeat of Native Americans was God's will. From this point on, photographed Indians, in particular, were used as trite props to embellish America's founding myths, with very few representations of them as "human" beings.
Even today, the image of Native Americans strongly persists in car brands, sports team names, clothing, toys, and household goods. In such cases, the stereotype of Plains Indians seems to represent many other Native American tribes as well. The usage of Native American imagery in promoting products likely stems from the fact that America is still engaged in a state of conflict with them. The battle has continued since 1492 over land and beliefs, and it is a battle aimed at depriving Native Americans of their right to remain distinct from European Americans.
Nevertheless, there are signs of change in recent photographs of Native Americans. Works like this collection provide excellent examples of conveying the present-day reality of Native Americans from a new perspective. The individuals depicted here are clearly distinct from past stereotypes. This is because the photographers have chosen to capture them in their actual living environments, in their true forms. The people who appear here possess characteristics that clearly set them apart from those belonging to mainstream American culture. Indeed, there are individuals here who strive to retain their Native American identity. There are also people who find happiness precisely in deviating from the American model of success. This collection of photographs speaks about these differences in values and what makes them unique individuals.
Native Americans are highly photogenic. Perhaps it is because their faces and hands vividly reflect their character. Their distinct facial features leave a strong impression on us. Their faces bear the imprints of various experiences, and the depth of those experiences is evident in their expressions. In the past, people have tried to read nobility and tragedy specifically in those expressions. Many people felt a sense of hostility from the furrowed brows and stern, unsmiling faces, which contributed to the image of Native Americans as inhuman, cold individuals. However, the individuals depicted in this collection show us different aspects. In addition to willpower and strength, their expressions exude warmth and a sense of happiness.
Many Native American tribes refer to themselves as "the people." The name "Indian" itself originated from a misunderstanding. When Columbus mistakenly believed he had discovered a route to India, he named the people living along the coasts "los indios" (the Indians). Even though we use the term "Indian" broadly, each tribe is distinct, with different cultures, worldviews, and ways of life. The names of tribes such as the Sioux, Iroquois, and Navajo were given to them by Europeans. Each tribe, or "nation" (as they prefer to be called), has its own name. For example, the Iroquois refer to themselves as "Haudenosaunee," which means "people of the longhouse." The Iroquois Confederacy consists of six tribes who came together under one law, similar to six families living under the same roof.
The people in this collection firmly stand on the land that their ancestors have protected for generations, carrying the pride of their tribes. They are the ones who have survived to uphold ancient traditions, as a nation, as a community, and as a family. In the photographs, they wear items that symbolize their connection to their ancestors. While materials may have changed through trade with white settlers, they continue to create symbols that demonstrate their identity to the world and to the Creator. It is proof of their desire to remain Native American. Tribal, clan, and familial identities are extremely important to them.
The environment in which they live greatly influences the culture, beliefs, and art of Native Americans. The land is the source of life and therefore is held in reverence. It is believed that the land houses souls, and through various rituals, they show respect while also seeking to nurture and enrich it further. Different tribes, geographically distinct, have developed their own cultures influenced by the nature of the land they inhabit. The land is a sacred entity that bestows upon them the shared spirit of the earth, and natural formations are important symbols of their faith, particularly mountains believed to possess great spiritual power.
For Native Americans, the land is profoundly sacred. Indeed, many tribes regard the land as their mother, and the connection with their mother is highly spiritual. Their lives are birthed from the earth and nurtured by it. A wholesome and abundant life is ensured by the earth. Their "poverty" came about when the concept of land ownership and wealth was introduced by white settlers. Native Americans consider it their duty to protect the land so that future generations, their children, can enjoy the bountiful blessings of this earth.
Water, too, is a source of their power. Water is a sacred blessing that gives life to the earth. Plants, animals, and humans all require water to survive. From the photographs, one can see how they handle water.
"Animals also bestow upon them great power. Living on ancestral lands for generations, they establish a spiritual connection with the animals residing there. They seek the protection of animal spirits and desire to share the wisdom of animals, particularly through dreams and visions."
One typical way of sharing the power of animals is by wearing feathers. Among them, the eagle feathers are most favored by Native Americans. Eagles are the birds that fly closest to the Creator and convey messages from the spirit of the sky. In other words, they communicate with the spirit of the sky through eagles. Feathers naturally contain the power of eagles, and by treating them with respect and without ill intentions, one can acquire the power of eagles. Feathers also connect them to the power present in the natural world. Wearing feathers allows the spirit of the eagle to come through the feathers and bestow power upon the individual, so wearing feathers is usually reserved for special occasions. Feathers also serve as a connection to their ancestors, representing their heritage, individual trust, and beliefs.
The most common way of wearing feathers is by attaching them to the hair. It is often seen that they are tied up straight towards the sky, as if indicating the source of power. Additionally, many tribes have dances that honor the eagle. From the headdress called the "feather crown," one can learn of the achievements of individuals or families, and by wearing it, one can directly connect with the spirit world. Eagles are sacred friends of Native Americans, and as a sign of gratitude towards them, eagles themselves give their feathers to Native Americans.
Family is the foundation of Native American society. The gathering of families forms clans, fulfilling cultural, spiritual, political, and economic responsibilities for the entire community. Each member of the family plays an important role, and this includes the young. They must carefully observe the actions of the elders and learn the proper path of being Native American. They learn intuitively not in classrooms but through the home, ceremonies, and tribal gatherings.
Native American parents have strong beliefs about their children's future. For example, the Iroquois believe that decisions made by their generation will impact the next seven generations. Decisions are made with great consideration to ensure that future generations are not harmed. This is a considerably different perspective from the short-term focus of corporate society in America. By considering the well-being of at least seven generations, families feel a strong connection to their ancestors and future generations.
In Native American society, elders are highly respected for their knowledge, experience, and wisdom. The educational responsibility that grandparents hold for their grandchildren is far more significant than in American society. They must assist the children in adapting to their everyday lives while also showing the younger generation the sacred path they have walked. The photographs presented here clearly depict the intergenerational connection, and the sentiments towards ancestors and future youth are conveyed. While times will undoubtedly continue to change, as long as Native American tribes maintain the cultural characteristics that bind their communities, they will continue to thrive. However, if they turn away from their traditions, hope for the future will undoubtedly be lost.
Looking at this photo collection, it becomes clear how important photos are to Native Americans. Many people display photos of past tribal heroes and loved ones. As something that bridges generations, photos have become increasingly valuable to them. It is interesting to think about how the descendants of these individuals will perceive these photos in the future. What would happen if these photos were placed in a time capsule along with advice for future generations of those depicted? The capsule would be opened in 2492, exactly 1,000 years after Columbus arrived in America. At that time, will people still not have exhausted the destruction of this Earth? Will the Native Americans have survived? Or will only photos of extinct Native Americans and recorded advice remain as the result? Native Americans are still on the brink of extinction more than any other ethnic group. Their culture is under attack, and their land is threatened. The future is completely uncertain. The photos presented here evoke a sense of crisis, suggesting that a rich and diverse culture of a particular ethnic group may have disappeared 1,000 years after contact with white people, even for us.
What has saved Native Americans throughout the thousands of years before the arrival of white people is nothing but their faith. Each tribe has remnants of their ancestors' beliefs in various forms. Rituals, ceremonies, and faith are not only inherited but also reinforced among different tribes every year. What has sustained the lives of Native Americans lies in their spiritual practices, so more and more Native Americans are striving to preserve various rituals for future generations. Many sacred rituals are prohibited from being photographed, so you won't see specific ceremonies in this photo collection. However, you can still feel the power of the rituals that affect people through the photos.
The belief systems of tribes differ greatly. Each tribe takes pride in their uniqueness, but the pursuit of peace and harmony is common among all traditional tribes, giving them a sense of unity that transcends their differences. It is difficult to notice these differences with just a brief encounter with Native Americans. Over the past few decades, travelers and scholars with cameras have passed through Native American communities, attempting to explain who Native Americans are through the photos they took. Native Americans change when they are in front of a camera. Fearing persecution, they have concealed the spiritual aspects of their lives from the eyes of white people. Due to numerous photographers exploiting the image of Native Americans, they have lost trust in photographers.
For generations, Native Americans have been told to pose in front of cameras. They often receive money as thanks for posing, leading to inside jokes about charging travelers and photographers. There have even been individuals who deliberately perform the stereotypes of Native Americans that have permeated mainstream American society.
In any case, this is not desirable. The number of photographers taking photos of Native Americans has increased, and Native Americans have become popular subjects in each era. The portrayal of Native Americans in literature, painting, and Hollywood movies also reflects the state of mind of Americans. The depiction of Native Americans varies in social, political, and spiritual contexts depending on the state of Americans at that time. At times, they were portrayed as obstacles blocking the progress of white society, savage murderers who always attacked white settlers when they appeared. At other times, they were depicted as victims swept away by the flow of civilization, helpless beings surviving by clinging to the mercy of white people. Of course, there have also been portrayals of them living a simple yet noble life in harmony and being portrayed as proud and dignified people. Today, they are sometimes portrayed as mysterious beings that white people want to borrow their spirituality from. However, regardless of the form they take, although there may be some truth, most are greatly exaggerated.
The strength of this photo collection lies in capturing people as they truly are. They seem to want to convey their pride in being Native American. There is a sense of trust in the photographers capturing them. And there is hope that people who see this photo collection will truly understand the existence of Native Americans who have beliefs and are still fighting to protect the earth.