This powerful exhibit shows how Indigenous photographers recapture Native American identity from colonizers

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During the winter of 1993, when Geronimo nearing theatrical release, Zig Jackson boarded a city bus wearing sunglasses, sneakers and a feathered headdress. A member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota, Jackson had recently left the reservation to pursue a career in photography. Documenting himself engaging in daily activities, he drastically upended the typical Hollywood trope that his people belonged in history.

With Indian man on the bus, Jackson also confronted his own tense art form. For many decades after its invention in the 1830s, photography was commonly used as a prop of colonization. In the United States, photographers like Edward Curtis and William Henry Jackson portrayed Native Americans in traditional attire that placed them firmly in the past. Sometimes the historical costume was provided by the photographers themselves. Usually, even sympathetic photographers judged their anthropological role. As pioneer George Wharton James proclaimed, the goal was to capture “everything we possibly can…before it’s too late.”

Recognition of the pernicious nature of documentary nostalgia was still marginal when Zig Jackson began documenting himself on city streets in 1993. Although mainstream American culture remains too oblivious to the stereotypes created by daguerreotypes and photogravures, photographers indigenous people are now confronting the past with ever greater force. The extraordinary range of creative engagements is a central theme of speak with light, a major new exhibit at the Amon Carter Museum.

The most direct confrontation can be seen in Will Wilson’s dramatic portrait photography. A master of 19e photochemistry of the last century, Wilson gave antiquarian techniques renewed relevance by allowing his native subjects to decide how they are depicted. Some people choose to wear ancestral regalia as dazzling as anything documented by Edward Curtis. Equally powerful are the portraits of elders who have chosen to put traditional clothing aside. For example, we see Oklahoma State Senator Enoch Haney, a former Seminole leader, dressed in a tie and jacket as if he had just walked out of the Capitol building. The aesthetic contrast between her attire and the vernacular tintype blurs stereotypes like Zig Jackson’s performative street photography does, but from a reverse perspective.

Resistance to erasing forces is sometimes called survival, a term intended to express that bodily survival is not enough, and that cultural continuity is just as essential. Wendy Red Star brings survival to life in a project that began with her discovery of hand-painted maps cataloging Crow artifacts at the Denver Art Museum. Red Star brought reproductions of these cards to the annual gathering of the Crow people and matched the items to those carried by attendees, including members of his own family. In her Accession series, the reproductions of the catalog sheet are covered with his portraits, scrolling subtly in prologue.

As Red Star has often eloquently argued, survival is aided by restitution. Ceremonial objects can reconnect people with their ancestors, helping to heal the brokenness of history. The same principle underlies Land Back, a movement to reclaim ancestral territory that Nicholas Galanin introduces into the exhibition through a photograph of a sign for Indian River that has been spray painted to become a sign for “Indian Land”.

Galanin brings another work that resonates even more deeply with that of Red Star: a photograph of an empty museum display case with the words Supernatural spirits and animals painted on the back wall. An audio recording of an auctioneer saying “fair warning” accompanies the image, evoking a time when Indigenous heritage was sold to the highest bidder and suggesting it still happens today. However, the fair warning also comes across as a warning to those who might partake in this bargain, and the vacuum of the case can also be interpreted as an indication that spirits and animals are truly supernatural.

Their invisibility paradoxically affirms that they are as spiritually present today as they have ever been. The photograph shows that survival is as much about internal belief as what the outside world can see.

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