Passalacqua, Veronica. "Hulleah
In Path Breakers, edited by Lucy Lippard (2003).
Indianapolis and Seattle: Eiteljorg Museum and University of Washington
by Veronica Passalacqua
(click here to contact author)
“No longer is the camera held by an outsider
looking in, the camera is held with brown hands opening familiar worlds.
We document ourselves with a humanizing eye,
we create new visions with ease, and we can turn the camera
and show how we see you.” – Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie1
encounters between photography and Native Americans have a history laced
with racism, colonialism, broken treaties, captivity, and romanticism.
Before the medium found its artistic outlets it purveyed so-called factual
evidence by functioning as a mode of one-sided documentation serving governmental
and scientific purposes. Many stereotypes generated by early images of
Native American life and culture continue to be insidiously pervasive.
Contemporary Native American/First Nations photography, however, is a
genre unto its own. Overcoming and confronting negative historical stereotypes,
many artists choose the medium as their preferred conduit for political
expression. While the techniques of photography are based in western history,
its appropriation by Indigenous artists has generated a sovereign space;
a territory created, propagated, and continually mediated by Native artists,
authors, and curators.
The inherent power of the photograph to validate truth, fact and history
fuels much of Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie’s eloquent artwork. She does
not seek approval or validation from an outside non-Native entity, but
as one of the first generation of artists founding this dynamic landscape,
she documents her views with self-experienced Native authority. She explores
her own life, politics, and community while at the same time she transgresses
geographically and ideologically imposed boundaries in order to consider
her work amongst a global Indigenous context.
A strong Indigenous artistic base, ignited by her father, fused with her
mother’s commitment to community and protocol created the catalyst
for an artist of political conviction. Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinie was born
in 1954 into the Bear and Raccoon Clans of the Seminole and Muscogee Nations,
and born for the Tsinajinnie Clan of the Diné Nation. Raised in
Phoenix and Rough Rock, Arizona, she attended the Institute of American
Indian Arts and completed her BFA from California College of Arts and
Crafts (1981). The Bay area became Tsinhnahjinnie’s home for the
next twenty years (1977-1997) and it was during that time that Tsinhnahjinnie
developed strong intertribal friendships and ties. She was active with
several native organizations serving as a board member for Intertribal
Friendship House, Oakland and the American Indian Contemporary Art Gallery
in San Francisco. Simultaneously creating art for her community in the
form of newsletters, posters, t-shirts, and photographic documentation
she began exhibiting her ‘fine art’ work in a variety of venues.
In ongoing collaborations with Indigenous organizations Tsinhnahjinnie
photographs and documents a variety of gatherings, events and conferences.
Twelve portraits form the “Native American and Hawaiian Women of
Hope” series (1997) commissioned by Union 1199, Bread and Roses
in New York. Created entirely for educational purposes the series features
women who possess “an unwavering commitment and dedication to the
struggle of their people to survive and flourish as distinct cultures.”
Annually, Tsinhnahjinnie teaches digital and multimedia art to young students
in Northern Minnesota, Cass Lake and Nett Lake. Over the years, she has
also taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, the San
Francisco Art Institute, and the California College of Arts and Crafts,
Oakland. Tsinhnahjinnie’s community activities were officially recognized
when she received the First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Award (2000).
During 2002, Tsinhnahjinnie individually photographed twelve California
Native American women, as part of a state-wide documentation project of
sixty-three women, representing twelve ethnicities, to promote California’s
Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. Currently, she is
compiling a related video public service announcement.
Pursuant to her family legacy, Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie is a traveler who
views the world from her own unique perspective. Similarly, the people
in her artworks frequently transgress time, space, and technology. Always
riding on political currents, the sitters often look out of the artwork
to ponder, question and challenge what they see. At other times they are
given agency through Tsinhnahjinnie’s artistic voice of social commentary
Cresting the multi-cultural wave of the 1980s Tsinhnahjinnie’s works
toured throughout North America and the world. Her works during this time,
such as the “Metropolitan Indian Series” (1984) “acknowledged
the persistent presence of Native people in urban cities and attested
to the communities they built.” Figures continued to roam in other
of Tsinhnahjinnie’s series. For example in, “Mattie Rides
a Bit Too Far”, Mattie a young Native girl, sits atop a Pendleton
blanket in the back of a 54 Chevy seeing the world outside of her car
window, she visits “South Africa, South America or South Dakota”,
all the while considering global social injustices. It was in the early
90s that Tsinhnahjinnie’s work rapidly grew in popularity exhibiting
in both native and non-native spaces and publications which resulted in
several awards, fellowships and artist residencies.
Upon reaching her 40th birthday in 1994, Tsinhnahjinnie’s personal
reflections of her family, political views, and life experiences are manifested
in a major series “Memoirs of an Aboriginal Savant”. Created
digitally, this electronic diary “masquerades as a book” of
fifteen vintage pages filled with photographs, illustrations, and the
artist’s first-person voice. Brainstorming the series with a group
of ‘techie’ friends over dinner one evening, the idea arose
to utilize yellowed and aged paper from the blank pages of old books.
Tsinhnahjinnie and her friends appreciated the paradox that authenticity
could be digitally created through the aged pages of a “non-existent
As an empowered author and artist, Tsinhnahjinnie writes herself into
history, through prose, images, and stories retaining what Lucy Lippard
has described as “esthetic sovereignty” by writing herself
into being “the way that I see myself rather than being interpreted
by others”. In the “Introduction” Tsinhnahjinnie states
that the viewer can “Journey to the center of an aboriginal mind
without the fear of being confronted by the aboriginal herself.”
Filled with emotions, Tsinhnahjinnie’s memoirs look inward to document
moments and thoughts in the artist’s life. At the same time, strong
political statements are directed outward to the viewer and are intermixed
with poignant storytelling and deeply personal reflections.
Reminiscing of childhood memories, Tsinhnahjinnie starts on page ‘1954’,
her birth year, sharing family memories and stories with the reader. Her
great grandmother, grandmother, mother and father relate stories of strength,
survival, endurance and knowledge. Through her own memories of high school,
friends, experiences, and dreams Tsinhnahjinnie looks back at these “thought-provoking”
moments through the political eyes of a mature Aboriginal savant. Throughout
the memoirs, as with a majority of her works, Tsinhnahjinnie expresses
her political views with strong conviction.
One of her most political and widely published installations, “Nobody’s
Pet Indian” (1993) marks a significant moment in Tsinhnahjinnie’s
career and is included in two pages of the electronic diary. In its fullest
form the installation occupies an entire room, as it did in 1993 at the
San Francisco Art Institute and is comprised of several 40” x 30”
black and white posters featuring Indigenous artists, activists, friends,
and family who are surrounded by their own words or Tsinhnahjinnie’s
“imposed identification labels” .
The installation pointedly confronts the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act
signed into legislation by President George Bush. The act requires artists
who identify themselves as American Indian/Native American to present
written documentation of their Native bloodlines . One of the complexities
of the debate revolves around the fact that such proof of identity can
only be obtained through the US Government, where only members of federally
recognized tribes may even apply. Such narrow qualifications lead to exclusions
for many Native Americans. As Theresa Harlan, photo-historian and critic,
specifies, many people might not be on state census rolls due to urban
relocation, or adopted children might not have access to enrollment information,
or all the members of tribes who have not attained the required federal
recognition. Heated debates around this law persevere today, kindled by
the recent exhibition of the installation at the San Jose Art Museum (2002).
The installation challenges the entire notion of blood quantum as being
an entirely western concept, born out of a “myth of pureness”
and comparable to WWII Nazi beliefs of blood impurities and practices
of governmental numbering systems.
…no matter how hard my mind is bombarded with thoughts of Americanization,
my mind will always return to the stories of Native survival. The books
in my mind
contain endless pages of Native intelligence, Native resistance, Native
countless pages I will carry for the rest of my life.”
From documenting her own history, Tsinhnahjinnie in “The Damn Series”
(1997) shifts her focus to reclaim and liberate images embedded in colonialist
history, firmly placing them within an Indigenous context. Consisting
of seven pieces the series is Tsinhnahjinnie’s most widely exhibited
and published series to date. The artist utilizes digital collage to alter
the figures’ context and gives agency to them by expressing her
voice and thoughts. The series combines subtlety, resolute statements,
and humor that is deeply rooted within Native knowledge. The popularity
of this series, can be attributed to the power of the works to engage
the varied international, US and native audiences. No matter what degree
of Native knowledge and experience the viewer possesses the art works
are enabled to initiate a dialogue.
During exhibition of the series at the Barbican Art Gallery in London
(1998) two pieces, “This is not a commercial, this is my homeland”,
and “Damn! There goes the Neighborhood!”, garnered much attention
from viewing audiences and press. These two works have been repeatedly
requested for publication, lectures, and exhibition. The iconic southwestern
landscape of red mittens and mesas produces a clichéd sense of
recognition, a connection of place that is accompanied by the emblazoned
artist statement prompting viewers to distinguish the fictional commercial
landscape from the reality that this is sovereign Diné land, known
in English as Monument Valley.
But it is the popularity of ‘Damn! There goes the Neighborhood!’
that is perhaps even more intriguing. Despite the lack of cultural knowledge
of the central figure, Shavano , and the Oscar Meyer Wiener-mobile by
international audiences, the majority of the press featured this particular
artwork. As a research assistant for the Barbican exhibition, I was invited
to conduct a gallery tour and when I reached this piece there was a noticeable
shift in my audience’s inquiries. The visual humor of Shavano’s
smoking gun and the bullet-riddled Wiener-mobile in combination with the
familiar phrase, possesses the power to engage viewers. Shortly thereafter,
the series was featured in a German language publication as well as exhibition
and publication in Slovenia , followed by several North American publications
and exhibitions, with the most recent showing this year at the George
In conjunction with the exhibition Message Carriers (1993), Harlan raises
the question of “who controls and interprets the message. So often,
the task of interpretation is handed to non-native art historians or anthropologists
who cannot properly evaluate the work because they do not have access
to native experience or ownership.” The extent to which audiences
understand and interpret contemporary native artwork can be proportionately
equated with the viewer’s possession (or not) of Native ‘cultural
capital’. Adapting the term from Bourdieu , I use of ‘Native
cultural capital’ as a conscious and unconscious acquisition of
Native knowledge through all forms of education and experience that spans
one’s lifetime. Tsinhnahjinnie’s works, like many contemporary
artists, are created entirely from an Indigenous perspective for Native
audiences. Her work engages wide audiences at the immediate levels of
understanding but reveals multi-layered complexities to those who have
the ability to bring Native knowledge to the viewing experience.
In 2000, after twenty years as a professional artist, Tsinhnahjinnie was
invited to attain her MFA from the University of California, Irvine where
she focused her studio work on digital videography. During her two years
in this program, Tsinhnahjinnie thought deeply about the positive aspects
of hybridity. She expresses the need to “embrace change, rather
than scorn it. To think positively about hybridity of race, techniques
for survival, hybridity in art, hybridity to create work on and off the
reservation, digital, pottery, sound, video, light, conceptual art...the
list is endless.” The result was Tsinhnahjinnie’s powerful
video installation Aboriginal World View (2002).
With the world’s spotlight on the Middle East, this continuously
looping, four and a half minute video has continually generated political
discussion since its first exhibition in 2002. The collaboration between
Tsinhnahjinnie and performance artist Leilani Chan originally intended
to search for “common grounds in other political situations in the
world by analyzing political tactics and having compassion for other people’s
causes.” In this video, we see a bound woman (Chan) wearing a hajib
designed of American flags. She surveys land of the Navajo reservation
while pow wow music pulsates strong and loud, and finally she reaches
the distorted sound waves of Pacific ocean. Screening the piece on three
huge layered panels, Tsinhnahjinnie visually alludes to the layers of
political complexities that surround the huge figure who perseveres with
her search under oppression. At UC Irvine, a false gallery floor was removed
to expose a mound of earth and an Indian head penny while Native music
emanated from the ground “reclaiming and reminding who the land
belongs to. The survival of songs and culture, survival when people are
silenced but the song is still here. A lot of things had to go underground
to survive and then they come out again when the time is appropriate.”
Tsinhnahjinnie challenges the selective memories of land ownership and
experience. More specifically, “how the United States recognizes
Israeli memory of land dating back 2000 years but when it comes to memory
of Native land, they won’t look back even 50 years – when
500 years ago it was all native land.”
Since the events of 9/11, the installation has acquired a new political
depth through the subsequent escalation of political tensions and the
Iraq war. For Tsinhnahjinnie the installation “became even more
significant as so many people blindly embraced patriotism without looking
at the complexities of the situation.” The US’s current position,
as an “occupying power” of foreign land is parallel for Tsinhnahjinnie
to “the whole history of native lands in the US and it goes back
to the phrase “America is stolen land”. The installation encompasses
all of those ideas -- the complexities of war, land, occupation, and colonialism.
Native people can’t forget that. Native people must not forget our
in 2000, Tsinhnahjinnie has become fascinated with exploring the cyberspace
of Ebay, where she frequently finds and buys vintage photographs of Indigenous
people worldwide. She bids against high powered commercial dealers and
collectors, and often wins when the sitter is in non-native attire. For
dealers, monetary value resides in vintage photographs of Native Americans
only when they are dressed in regalia, or fit “the white man’s
code of Indian, wearing feathers and buckskin”. But then the dealers
are looking at the photographs, and perhaps cannot see that the sitter
is actually looking at them. Unlike many ‘collectible’ vintage
Native American photographs, the gazes in these portraits are not voyeuristic,
not anthropological, not part of government documentation, and not about
the photographer. In these portraits the authority and power is held entirely
by the subjects who control their own identity and look directly out of
the photograph in the way they wish to be represented.
Through the portal of digital technologies Tsinhnahjinnie transports the
subjects of her vintage photo postcards through time and space to convey
her own interpretations and artistic views. For her, the series “is
about not forgetting these images that are floating around deemed of little
value by collectors, but should be valued and collected by native people.”
As photo postcards they were frequently used as correspondence and acquire
even more power of individual and collective memory for Tsinhnahjinnie
when there is a hand written message from the sitter or a relative.
The original ten portraits in Tsinhnahjinnie’s “Portraits
Against Amnesia” (2003) series were all of postcard size but in
their remembering Tsinhnahjinnie has made them into large 20x30 inch prints,
now too large to be misplaced or forgotten. Some of the figures are larger
than life-size and gaze directly out of the photograph to the viewer,
leaving their time period behind to be present in the new millennium.
The latest digital printing technologies produce a golden luminous finish
within the sepia tones that empowers the portraits to fight all forms
In a memorial work, “Grandmother”, Tsinhnahjinnie shows her
Seminole grandmother surrounded by yellow dots which represent all the
family spirits that helped her throughout her life. “The spirits
that help you before you enter this world, the spirits that help you while
you’re in this world, and the spirit you will become.” Her
father, Diné artist Andrew Tsinajinnie is featured in “Dad”
and remains deeply influential for Tsinhnahjinnie because of her admiration
for his endurance and life long commitment to creating art until his passing
in 2000. Photographed in military attire he is surrounded by elements
from his own artworks. A Diné hogan with a plume of smoke sits
behind him and was the way in which he signed many of his early paintings.
“The Mule Rider” (1965) emerges from behind him as a memory
of his runaway story from school, a story he told his seven children many
times. Here again Tsinhnahjinnie incorporates the story into history,
as she did within “Memoirs of an Aboriginal Savant” as well
as a recently video in his name.
Of the two dapper and handsome young men who commissioned their portraits,
“Che-bon” dons a tilted hat and is dressed in a stylish suit
reminding Tsinhnahjinnie “how fashionable some of the dudes were!”.
Poor fixation of the photograph has resulted in a chemical effect that
fades and disintegrates the image. Combined with the slight blurriness
of the sitter the effects render a romantic ethereal quality which was
further enhanced by the artist. The other bow-tied young man, Istee-cha-tee
Aspirations, poses with a hand on his hip, purposefully casual with his
foot resting on the chair, in what Tsinhnahjinnie views as a political
stance. She draws focus to his hand, a loosely closed fist where she sees
his thumb as “an indirect way of pointing at people, very political,
a gesture that former President Clinton often utilized.”
Two young children were taken to studios for their portraits and while
“Boy-in-the-moon” sits atop a studio crescent moon in a room
full of bright stars, “Hoke-tee hovers vividly above the surface
of the moon. Another view of colonialism Tsinhnahjinnie visualizes “man
going to the moon trying to claim it, but when he gets there, there is
a little aboriginal baby floating around on her little space scooter.
So colonismo spaceman picks up his bags and takes off because it is just
too much!” Remembering one of her earlier works, Mattie Rides a
Bit Too Far, she consciously reverses and compares the viewing positions
“where Mattie is looking out into space, this baby is out in space
and looking back at you, confronting your perceptions!”
In “Oklahoma” Tsinhnahjinnie transports two Oklahoma women
from their time and context to be surrounded by shifting and skewed slices
of time. “The planes of time we occupy while we are here and when
we are gone. The planes of time our memory occupies as we put them into
thought.” Tsinhnahjinnie includes one slice of time, a landscape
from her home in Rough Rock, Arizona as a mode of her own interaction
with the portrait. This spring, Tsinhnahjinnie and her mother traveled
to Oklahoma to visit with relatives, some of whom she had never met. The
portrait, “Grandchildren” visually reminds the artist of the
black Seminole relatives she has only just met and “how that history
is often hidden, so in Grandchildren I raise the issue of interracial
relations that are put into selective memory, conveniently forgotten.”
Whether Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie is documenting or reclaiming histories
and images, commenting on national and global politics, or making us laugh,
her voice is strong and clear. Communicating through her images, she explores
a variety of mediums, always cognizant of new directions and technologies.
It was a natural and vital step when Tsinhnahjinnie leaped from photographic
hand-collage to the ever-expansive possibilities of the digital world.
She makes Walter Benjamin’s fears of mass dissemination realized,
with the ability to bring the Indigenous world together across continents,
maintaining full sovereignty of an enduring and persevering Native philosophy.
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
to reinterpret images of Native peoples. My mind was ready, primed with
resistance and resilience, stories of survival. My views of these images
aboriginally based, an indigenous perspective, not a scientific Godly
but philosophically Native.” -- Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie 15
©Veronica Passalacqua, 2003.
1.Tsinhnahjinnie, H. J.
(1993). "Compensating Imbalances." Exposure 29(1): 30.
2.Bread and Roses Cultural Project (1997). Women of Hope, Native American/Hawaiian:
Study Guide. New York, 1199 National Health and Human Service Employees
Union.. Featured women were: Lori Arviso Alvord, Charlotte A. Black Elk,
Carrie and Mary Dann, Joy Harjo, Pualani Kanahele, Winona LaDuke, Wilma
Mankiller, Muriel Miguel, Janine Pease-Pretty On Top, Joanne Shenandoah,
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and Rosita Worl.
3.Harlan, T. (2002). Indigenous Visionaries: Native Women Artists in California.
Art/Women/California 1950-2000: Parallels and Intersections. D. Fuller
and D. Salvioni. Berkeley, San Jose Museum of Art, University of California
4.Artist communication. Unless referenced otherwise, all quotations by
Tsinhnahjinnie are excerpted from interviews conducted directly with the
5.Harlan, T. (1994). "Cultural Constructions: Rethinking Past and
the New Realities." Camerawork: A Journal of Photographic Arts 21(1):
8.Shavano info to follow..
9.Umetnostna Galerija Maribor (2000). American Dreams: 6th international
triennal The Ecology and the Art. U. G. Maribor. Slovenia.
10.Indian Art/Facts (2002). George Eastman House, Rochester NY.
11.Harlan, T. (1993). "Message Carriers: Native Photographic Messages."
VIEWS: The Journal of Photography in New England 13-4/14-1:7
12.Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement
of Taste. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
13.NPR debate 5/9/03.
14.Benjamin, W. (1955). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
15.Illuminations. H. Arendt. New York, Schocken Books: 217-251.
15.Tsinhnahjinnie, H. J. (1998). When is a Photograph Worth a Thousand
Words? Native 16.Nations: Journeys in American Photography. J. Alison.
London, Barbican Art Gallery and Booth-Clibborn Editions.: 42