Tsinhnahjinnie, H. J. (1998). When is a Photograph Worth a Thousand Words? Native Nations: Journeys in American Photography. J. Alison. London, Barbican Art Gallery and Booth-Clibborn Editions.

Tsinhnahjinnie, H. J. (2003). When is a Photograph worth a Thousand Words? Photography's Other Histories. C. Pinney and N. Peterson. Durham and London, Duke University Press: 40-52.


When Is a Photograph Worth a Thousand Words?

by Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie

Stories are always told from all corners of the world: stories of creation, stories of the ethereal, stories of survival; grandmothers, grandfathers telling stories that were told to them by their grandmothers and grand- fathers; aunties relating stories about brothers and sisters. We are all familiar with the warmth of stories cradling, surrounding, supporting new generations.
I remember several of the stories related to me by my mother; as she spoke I would visualize the scenes in my young mind-just like a television, just like a photograph.

Our family photographs from the past are very few, my mother's family (Seminole and Muskogee) had a collection of family photographs that perished in a house fire during the 194-°S. I would occasionally overhear my mother and Aunt Marie lamenting over the loss. Although I know them from the beautifully woven stories, I have never viewed their likeness in a photograph. My mother's father passed on before I was born. I have never seen an image of my grandfather. But in my mind - my imagined photographs-the men are strong and handsome, the women strong and breathtaking, with lustrous warm dark skin, lightening-sharp witty eyes, and smiles that could carry one for days. A photographic album full of beautiful brown people, a photographic album of visual affirmation.

My father's family (Diné) never had very many photographs, there was no furious fire to melt the negatives, there was a philosophy which was very protective. To outsiders I suppose the attitude would be interpreted as superstitious or even shy. Whatever the outsider preferred to believe, whatever the sophisticated evaluation arrived at, the outsider would leave the reservation satisfied that stereotypes had been affirmed. They never interpreted the "backward attitude" of the subject or shyness as a statement about their presence. The superstition or shyness was neither explained nor elaborated on to strangers, because the "photographer" would not have understood the nuances of privacy that the Diné perceived.

My Seminole, Muskogee, and Diné relatives may not have shared the same views about photography, but as American history would have it they did endure the same government policies created to destroy the very fabric of Native culture. All three Nations experienced forced removal from ancestral homelands.

My Seminole and Muskogee relatives were forced to walk from Florida to Oklahoma. a forced march that began in the late 1830S and is known as the Trail of Tears. My Dine relatives also have a name for their forced removal: "The Long Walk" (1867). The forced marches were in violation of every basic human right imaginable.

The focus of my relatives was the reality of survival, keeping one's family alive. Time to contemplate Western philosophy or the invention of photography was, shall we say, limited. Because of the preoccupation with survival, Native people became the subject rather than the observer. The subject of judgmental images as viewed by the foreigner - images worth a thousand words. As long as the words were in English.

When I first began reading ethnographic images I would become extremely depressed, but then recognition dawned. I was viewing the images as an observer, not as the observed. My analytical eye matured, and I became suspicious of the awkward, self-appointed "expert" narrative. From delegation photographers, expedition photographers, and ethnographic researchers, I was very cognizant of methodologies that were of the "objective" foreign eye. But even so flawed, these nineteenth-century images were very significant in filling the empty pages of my family album.

It was a beautiful day when the scales fell from my eyes and I first encountered photographic sovereignty. A beautiful day when I decided that I would take responsibility to reinterpret images of Native peoples. My mind was ready, primed with stories of resistance and resilience, stories of survival. My views of these images are aboriginally based - an indigenous perspective - not a scientific godly order but philosophically Native.

The understanding of indigenous continuance must be the understanding of indigenous religion. From healers to message receivers, enduring the past and the continuous assault by Christianity. Native religion and philosophy hid to survive and resurface at appropriate moments. As I look into the eyes of Ayyuini (Swimmer) (fig. 1), I recall a conversation I had on a hot, humid Oklahoma afternoon in August when I was photographing Wilma Mankiller, activist and former principal chief of the Oklahoma Aniyunwiya (Cherokees). We were outside under the gracious shade of mature black-jack trees, shades of green. Cooling the sweat from my face, I raised my head pausing from the viewfinder to ask Wilma who Swimmer was. With locusts singing in the background to the rhythm of the heat, Wilma tilted her head to one side and looked at me thoughtfully and said. "He was the source of some of the strongest Cherokee medicine. He was extremely powerful. . . . How do you know of Swimmer?" Adjusting my lens I replied, "I saw his photograph in a book of nineteenth- century images of Native people, and the caption read. 'Ayyuini [Swimmer], Cherokee' - no other information, just a sliver of a caption.” Wilma told me about Ayyuini and his understudies, and how no one since has equaled his presence and power. The arrival of this information was appropriate, not only in location but of the oral tradition reaffirming the feeling that I had when I looked into Ayyuini's eyes. When I gaze upon the image of the Hinano'ei (Arapaho) followers of the Ghost Dance religion (fig. 2) and the image of the Yebichai (fig. 3), I am filled with emotion. Although Mooney and Curtis thought they were imaging a vanishing race. I see the contrary. I see perseverance. In these photos I immediately recognize the power of survival, and my heart is filled with emotion. There is the synthesising of my existence, the very reason why this indigenous woman, typing on a laptop computer at the end of the twentieth century, exists. The persistence of that same religion lives within me, ensuring Native survival and thus refusing to surrender the soul. Native land may be taken by force or by invented written declarations, and natural resources sucked up by an infantile America, but no matter how many words are written on a piece of paper declaring ownership of land, no matter the towns and metropolitans possessing foreign names, America will always be Native land.

Native people, photographed dramatically in appropriate savage attire, vanishing before one's eyes, Native people photographed in suits of assimilation tailored to the correct perspective of a progressive new world. Such schizophrenia lamented the disappearing of the "Indian" and yet celebrated images of "Indians" accepting progress. That which could not be scrubbed with soap and water, dressed properly, beaten, or destined for extinction was and is the persistence of the indigenous soul, the persistence to exist, the strength of endurance to be faithful to Native intelligence, Native religion. As I look at these photographs of religion, I think of the ceremonies that take place today on the reservation, in the cities. I think of those chosen to carry responsibility and of those who step forward to take responsibility: the singers who carry the songs, those who know the relationship of plants to people, Native-rights lawyers, activists, philosophers, writers, artists, single mothers, aunts, grandparents, individuals who have accepted the responsibility of continuance. There is no doubt in my mind that the people imaged in these photographs are aware of the integral link they have to today's existence of Native religion. I am also reminded that times have not changed much and that the assault continues in ways that aren't as recognizable as in the past but with tactics that are just as deadly. The over-romanticizing and simplification of Native existence have been and continue to be two of the greatest assaults on Native existence.

I am quite aware that this is not a new story, it is a story that has been studied and repeated. Unknown to many, the methodology of the U.S.-planned genocide of Native people was studied and emulated.

This story began on a June evening late in 1990 in Haudensonee land, where I was in residency at the Center for Conceptual Photography in Buffalo, New York. Earlier Jolene Rickard had invited me to visit her reservation, and that day I was given the grand tour. In the evening I rested at her parents' house while Jolene was out on errands. Jolene's father and I were sitting in webbed lawn chairs sipping ice tea, the scent of citronella candles wafting in the air. Mr. Rickard was sharing Tuscarora history. He asked if I knew of "Old Man Clinton"; I replied "No.” The crickets seemed to soften their voices as Mr. Rickard began telling me about Clinton Rickard: the stories were incredible, one was particularly haunting.

In the early 1930s, a German investigation team arrived at the Tuscarora Nation and sought out Clinton Rickard. They were searching for information about the genocidal practices of the United States, past and present, and Clinton Rickard was an authority on Native American history and law. The investigation team asked questions and took notes, they returned a second day full of questions and notebooks. As I listened to this story my soul shivered, Jolene's father was giving me a gift, a story. The Tuscarora Nation was not the only Nation visited by investigation teams. Later, I related this story to a friend involved with the Jewish museum in San Francisco, who then told the people at the museum. Most were skeptical, but one said that she had heard of such a visitation on the Shoshone reservation. This story has yet to evolve as "hard evidence" to the doubters, for me this story need not be in print form for it to be true, the oral transference of information that summer evening in Haundensonee Territory will always be more real than words in a book.

When oral history coincides with photographic evidence the impact can be disturbing. The photographic evidence of U.S. genocidal practices is not extensive (if there is no evidence of genocide then there was no genocide). But the few photographs available are poignant: The images of the massacre at Wounded Knee, the bodies of Sioux people stacked on a wagon for a mass burial, and the photograph of Big Foot, frozen in death (fig. 4).

I had a vivid dream of this photograph. In my dream I was an observer floating - I saw Big Foot as he is in the photograph, and my heart ached.

I was about to mourn uncontrollably when into the scene walked a small child, about six years old. She walked about the carnage, looking into the faces of those lying dead in the snow. She was searching for someone. Her small moccasin footprints imprinted the snow as she walked over to Big Foot, looking into his face. She shakes his shoulders, takes his frozen hand into her small, warm hand, and helps him to his feet. He then brushes the snow off of his clothes. She waits patiently with her hand extended, he then takes her hand and they walk out of the photograph. This is the dream I recall when I look upon this image of supposed hopelessness.

The complexity of the subject being photographed never seems to be included in the thousand words. It seems the thousand words get reduced to a generic title void of the subject's voice, especially in the case of the indigenous subject. What better photograph to illustrate this than the photograph taken in 1879 by John K. Hillers (fig. 5). It's an innocent enough photograph. A documentation of the Zuni mission school run by Taylor Ealy (standing right), Miss Jennie Hammaker (standing left) was their teacher, twenty-seven students, one baby, five Zuni men, one Zuni woman, and two (unfocused) observers on the roof. No one is named except for the white people, nothing new. A very dry photograph.

Except for the Zuni woman standing behind the children, standing be- hind the children in a very maternal, protective way. The woman is We'wha, a respected member of the community, involved in the ceremonies, an excellent artist and cultural ambassador for her people. We'wha traveled to Washington in 1886 to meet national leaders and the president. We'wha influenced whites and Native people alike, an incredible life. This beautiful woman was a man.

We'wha was born into this world a male, lived her life as a woman, and then departed this world as a man (1896). This photograph is a perfect ex- ample of those complexities that cannot be reduced to a three-sentence caption.

In today's politically correct language We'wha would be referred to as gay, but even that is not correct, "gay" is a foreign, alienating word. The anthropologist would label We'wha berdache whereas contemporary Native gay and lesbians prefer the self-described title of two-spirited society.

The history of the two-spirited society is very limited due to assimilation, Christianity, and the need to survive. As written by Will Roscoe in The Zuni Man Woman:

The abandonment of the dress accrued throughout Native North America. Persons learned of an Isleta berdache in the 1930S who had adopted men's clothes and another at San Felipe who wore men's clothing at his job in Albuquerque and women's clothing while in his pueblo. Among the Dine [Navajo], most berdaches stopped cross-dressing in the early 20th century, and several observers have cited the impact of white ridicule. . . . In some cases, cross-dressing and gender mixing were actively suppressed by Indian agents (or their suppression was contemplated, as in the case of Pueblo agents in the 1890s)…Of course berdaches were not alone in abandoning traditional clothing. Indians who wore Native clothing in the white world- male or female or berdache were often ridiculed. Eventually, all Indians made compromises in how they dressed, at least in the white setting.

Similar to the survival tactics of indigenous religion, the two-spirited society survived by becoming invisible. Being invisible by no means connotes defeat. Being invisible signifies the condition of the current political atmosphere. The two-spirited society faced a dilemma much like that of Native religion: conform to the specifics of assimilation or go underground.

Similar to missionaries knocking on the doors of Native homes, presenting the proper road to heaven, so approaches the gay and lesbian community spouting polemic political agendas defining a proper existence, a missionary approach that does not include indigenous philosophy, much less historical or cultural perspective. One must even be aware of the complexities of the self-described title "two-spirited society" a definition, a contemporary definition in English, when there exists proper titles in several aboriginal languages: surviving titles that are neither alienating nor judgmental; words describing one's position in community; words before contact with Christians or anthropologists. In the Zuni language, We'wha was Ihamana.

When is a photograph worth a thousand words? When photographs were occupied with "a thousand words" of text the "official" language often would fall short and many times completely miss the point.

Aboriginal beauty. Curtis photographed a beautiful Acoma Pueblo woman (fig. 6) staring into the lens. It is an intense moment, not exactly an endearing stare. Curtis was the voyeur photographer aware of the physical. What of her mind? Her thoughts of yesterday, today, and tomorrow? I can relate to the energy that she emits. It reminds me of the summers when my father, a painter, would travel to Monument Valley or Canyon de Chelly to paint the landscape and sell the paintings to the tourists who were watching him paint. My brother, sister, and I would play nearby, climbing the red rocks, playing in the sand. The tourists would call us over and take our picture, sometimes giving us a quarter, the look I perfected was the look that the Acoma woman is giving Curtis: "Take your photograph and…" I like this image: perhaps I am projecting, but isn't this what it's all about?

The nineteenth-century photographer who, I believe, truly imaged Native women with love and a humanizing eye is Jennie Ross Cobb (Aniyunwiya). Photographs of Native women at the Aniyunwiya (Cherokee) women's seminary (fig. ]), images of Native women living in the contemporary, relaxed poses, smiling to a friend. Photographs by a Native woman photographing Native women at the end of the nineteenth century: images Curtis, Vroman, Hillers, and the many others could not even begin to emulate, when the eye of the beholder possesses love for the beheld.

Images of the early non-Native photographers documenting Native people will always be interesting, but of more interest to me is the aboriginal perspective, the aboriginal photographer. The "discovery" of early Native photographers is exciting, there are more - I can sense them. They also know when to surface.

Several aspects of Native beauty are resurfacing: the photograph of Johnny Kit Elswa (Haida Gwaii) by Ensign E. P. Niblack. with the Bear clan inscribed on his chest and the dog fish permanently on his arms (fig. 8). Aboriginal tattoo - the brazen illustration of identity. Tattoos went under the skin to survive, encoded beneath the skin, programmed to resurface when the time is right: this is also how I perceive the art of aboriginal tattoo, latent images.

I have been considering tattoos for years. The Muskogee, my mother's people, adorned themselves with tattoos to signify status of power both spiritually and socially. From Atearoa to Florida there was a submergence of moko, of tattoo. Today there is a healthy resurfacing.

I am in the process of researching and receiving information. Research as in the "Western" academic sense, scrutinizing, investigating, collating assembled notes from museums, ethnological reports, etching, observances from those who were sincerely curious and yet simultaneously whose pre- conceived assumptions prepared the climate for the submergence of tattoo.

I receive information via the aboriginal internal world - information by dreams, ethereal coincidences, and the very important oral tradition of the aboriginal people around the world. The reemergence of aboriginal traditions, the wave of rebirth, people surviving, harvest dances being danced and songs returning in dreams…information resurfacing.

When I begin to tell my stories to my many nieces and nephews, I will first create photographic albums in their young minds…where the men are strong and handsome, the women strong and breathtaking, with lustrous warm dark skin, lightening-sharp witty eyes, and smiles that could carry one for days. A photographic album full of beautiful brown people, a photographic album of visual affirmation.

©Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie, 1998, 2003.

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