First thing first, I want to identify myself as transparently as I can. I am a mixed-race white and Native American queer cis woman. I was born and raised in a DC suburb, or as we call it in our cultural circles - “urbanized.” My grandmother is a “full blood,” making my mother half and me a quarter. The majority of my blood is European and I move through the world although not entirely, but most often as, white-passing. This has afforded me many privileges in the world at large and certainly as being an approachable woman of color in the art scene. I grew up approximately a 22-hour drive from my tribal grounds and more traditional family out in OK and MO and did not begin to heal my relationship to my family, nor did I begin regaining culture (which was largely lost through the legacy of Indian boarding schools in the 1930’s-1980’s) until I was 18. At that time I enrolled in the Eastern Shawnee Nation and attended my first powwow in Oklahoma. We are a matrilineal society so, although my blood is also from the Wyandotte tribe, we follow the mother’s lineage. I want to be clear that when I speak on Native issues, I am coming only from my own perspective which is decidedly a narrow point of view in the grand scheme of tribal politics and cultural affairs. I do not speak for the culture at large and am no authority on anything besides my own art practice; I hope that is clear and encourage other white-passing and mixed race Natives to pass the mic as often as possible to people operating with higher barriers to being seen and heard.
Historical trauma as it relates to Indigenous culture, especially viewed through a lens of the history of photography, is nothing to be taken lightly. We are just over 500 years into Native American resistance to colonization, which sounds like immeasurable lifetimes yet most of us North American Indigenous folks have living or recently passed family who experienced forced removal, boarding schools and the like. It is important to note this when talking about my work. The world’s first views of Native Americans were largely produced by white men, most notable among them being Edward S. Curtis. He was a photographer whose most revered work is his North American Indians project documenting 80 tribal groups in 40,000 images taken in the early 1900s, funded by one of the founders of General Electric in some sort of philanthropic endeavor. This project gained a lot of traction at the time and I pinpoint it as one of the more egregious examples of the white gaze upon Native culture, made worse with media pull and generous funding. It has come to light that in these classic images, Curtis was often staging the sets and asking people to wear regalia and makeup that did not reflect the tribes he was allegedly representing.
Because of language barriers and so on, many people agreed willingly not understanding what the outcome would be. Beginning here is a long legacy of images of Indigenous people being exploited, exoticized, sexualized, misrepresented and used to the benefit of white people’s aims. Even as an enrolled tribal member, my skin tone and the medium I’ve chosen to work in are both deemed highly untrustworthy by many folks I encounter, which is my cross to bear. I also feel it is a gift to be widely accepted by non-Indigenous folks and be able to walk in both worlds at all, affording me the ability to be some sort of messenger and hopeful healer to my culture.
The photography project which I began this summer is entitled Holamooki (translates to “shades of red war paint” in Shawnee). It is an ongoing collection of portraits of queer North American Indigenous people all over this country and Canada (I’m open to shooting in Mexico as well!). I have started this project in hopes of beginning to heal the traumas inflicted upon our culture at the hands of European colonization, with a particular lens looking at how we are rebuilding our own queer communities in a contemporary, post-contact world. Many tribes historically had space to revere third genders and same-sex couples (I’ve admittedly not found specific information about this from the Eastern Shawnee Nation), which is a practice squandered by colonization and the forced spread of Christianity.
Homophobia and transphobia are largely learned behaviors in Native communities only existing post-contact. I firmly believe in representation having the power to change a culture, affect politics and bring healing to individuals who may otherwise feel very othered or unseen in their own circles. Where I hope to take this project is to receive more funding to keep shooting and grow the body of work, and eventually publish a photo book to distribute for free among tribal colleges, grade schools and offices. If I were to ever break even and enter “profit” for this work, it is my intention to reallocate those funds among Two-Spirit societies and other queer Indigenous organizations, as well as suicide prevention initiatives in Indian country. I hope that through generating these images I can normalize and uplift that which society has told us is not enough: our bodies, our skin, our regalia, our stories, our land. And I hope for a transformed future where queer and Two-Spirit individuals are again revered, reparations paid, and our land respected.
Follow more of Amy’s work here.