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Beneath savage profiles (04/22/2007)
By Janet Lewis Burns
"The Pueblo people did not fear or hate cameras or the photographic image so much as they objected to the intrusive vulgarity of the white men who gazed through the lens."

This quote comes from Leslie Marmon Silko's "Essays on Native American Life Today." Silko, an award winning author from Tucson, is of Laguna Pueblo heritage.

Another poignant chronicle "The Plains Indian Photographs Of Edward S. Curtis" (1868-1952) contains many of the Native American photographs we've all seen on postcards and souvenirs.

PICTURE THIS: Curtis roamed across western North America for more than 30 years, from the mid-1890s through the late 1920s, producing tens of thousands of images, as well as collecting and recording legends, songs, religious customs, and housing traditions.

"The decade of the 1890s became a period of earnest pursuit, both in Europe and America, of the acceptance of photography as a legitimate and unique art form." From Curtis's pictorial compilation, Duane Niatum tells that images other than camera shots were no longer accepted and trusted as authentic.

Paintings and sketches often posed the Native Americans as the wild, reckless, and savage Plains men who set out to hunt down and massacre the white race. The facts have been established that the Indian Nations were defending their people and land from the aggressively dominant and greedy Euro-American intruders who had robbed and killed in the name of possession.

DISTORTED HISTORY: Classroom books have been inaccurate and slanted down through the ages. Gayashuta, a Seneca, spoke this, "The lands that belonged to us were extended far beyond where we hunted"¦When your fathers asked us for land, we gave it to them, for we had more than enough."

Edward S. Curtis's photography appears miraculous because it shows a softer side of the true character of individual chiefs and warriors. One of his subjects, Hollow Horn

Bear had a reputation of mythic proportions. In the book, Duane Niatum wrote this pertaining to Curtis's photo:

"It is as if Hollow Horn Bear were saying directly to the viewer, ‘Forget the stories you have heard of my glories in battle and the hunt, my physical prowess and fierce nature. Trust me, my friends, that is all show. The man you see looking into your eyes with nothing but the feeling of peace and friendship flowing through the river of his mind is the real me. I am only a small creature of the earth and not ashamed of it.' " "THE INDIAN WITH A CAMERA" chapter from Silko's book, contains eye-opening input. ""¦soon the Hopis and other Pueblo people learned from experience that most white photographers attending sacred dances were cheap voyeurs who had no reverence for the spiritual." "The people of my great-grandmother's generation were concerned less with a person's ancestry than with a person's integrity."

RATIONALIZATIONS? Traditional artists once mislead Euro-Americans by reassuring them that, while not extinct, Native Americans were not truly part of American society. Silko writes, "Euro-Americans desperately need to believe that the indigenous people and cultures that were destroyed were somehow less than human; Indian photographers are proof to the contrary."

INJUSTICES OF THE PAST: In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt invited Geronimo and other tribal leaders to ride in his inaugural parade. People who criticized were told that the president had wished to "give the people a good show."

Another infringement, the U.S. government had outlawed the practice of the Pueblo religion in the country, in favor of Christianity exclusively. Silko tells of yet another atrocity. In an effort to forcibly sever Pueblo children's ties with their families and tribal influence, they were sent thousands of miles away to the boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania during the 1890s.

This act of "cultural genocide" failed. When the children were returned to their families, ""¦they were reunited with what continues and what has always continued."

LIVE AND LEARN: Individuals like Edward S. Curtis and Leslie Marmon Silko have been stepping- stones to understanding and knowledge deeply needed to promote harmony between all Americans.

"But the old stories also tell of another time, when all things incompatible with Mother Earth will disappear and all those who attached themselves to such things will also disappear," Silko wrote.

Today's speculations are the substance of what the future might hold in store for our descendants. They deserve a sustaining and nurturing legacy, for survival as well as for spiritual endowment. It's time we got the picture.

Janet Burns has been a lifelong resident in this neck of the woods. She can be reached at patandjanburns@earthlink.net



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