Passalacqua, Veronica. "Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie."
In Path Breakers, edited by Lucy Lippard (2003).
Indianapolis and Seattle: Eiteljorg Museum and University of Washington Press.

Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie (Diné/Seminole/Muscogee)
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

Early 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 and critique.

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 book”.

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.

“Epilogue: …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 pride,
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 Eastman House.

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 political history.”

Beginning 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 of amnesia.

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.

“That 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.” -- 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 Press: 192.
4.Artist communication. Unless referenced otherwise, all quotations by Tsinhnahjinnie are excerpted from interviews conducted directly with the artist.
5.Harlan, T. (1994). "Cultural Constructions: Rethinking Past and the New Realities." Camerawork: A Journal of Photographic Arts 21(1): 20.
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