Photo exhibit explores issue of Native American identity

The history between American Indians and photography is a complicated one, and the difficult issues and questions it raises will be explored at the John A. Day Gallery through Jan. 30, 2013.

The fine art exhibit “Picturing Native: Photographs from Edward Curtis, Horace Poolaw and Zig Jackson” will be on display at the John A. Day Gallery in the Warren M. Lee Center for Fine Arts on the USD campus through Jan. 30, 2013.

"Picturing Native: Photographs from Edward Curtis, Horace Poolaw and Zig Jackson" went on display Dec. 20 in the gallery, which is located in the Warren M. Lee Center for Fine Arts on the USD campus.

Essentially a fine art photography exhibit, it includes the work of three different photographers from three different photographic periods of the 20th century.

"Hopefully, the viewer will come in and see how the depiction of the American Indian has changed over that period of time, and really that there is such an interesting relationship between the photographic medium and the depiction of American Indians," said Alison Erazmus, director of the University Art Galleries and curator of the exhibit.

"Picturing Native" features a small selection of photogravures by Edward Curtis from his study, "The North American Indian (1907-1930)," which are on loan from the University Libraries Archives and Special Collections at USD.

"Curtis treated his project … as a way to preserve what he thought was a vanishing race," Erzamus said. "He felt like his photographs had a social utility."

Despite its intent, Curtis' work has come under criticism for maintaining stereotypes, as well as its lack of input from the subjects themselves.

"Because Curtis' work was so problematic and political for some viewers, it's best to contextualize it, and I thought, 'What better way to contextualize that than showing it with two other examples of photographic works that explore indigenous identity?'" Erzamus said.

The second photographer is Horace Poolaw, a member of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma, who died in 1984.

Poolaw's work depicts his family and friends in their daily lives in Oklahoma during a transitional period of assimilation from the 1930s through the 1950s.

Erazmus worked directly with his family in securing prints for the exhibition.

"The family was very welcoming, and wanted to participate in the show with these pictures that have never come to South Dakota to my knowledge," she said. "It's a really rich opportunity to see the Poolaw work in person for the first time."

The third photographer is Zig Jackson of the Manan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes.

"Zig's work is really a counter-thesis to Edward Curtis' work," Erazmus said. "He understands how Curtis' photographs in particular have been used to develop and maintain stereotypes of American Indians, and he deconstructs that with his photography, but also shares a playful mocking element that you see in Horace Poolaw's photography."

Erazmus said it's not uncommon to hear visitors giggling at certain points of the exhibition, particularly around Jackson's work.

"(Picturing Native) starts off kind of somber and sad, and these photogravures by Curtis are very beautiful, but he depicts them as a defeated race," she said. "You don't see a lot of joy, and you don't really know what the people in the photographs thought about it, because he was treating them as 'others' and photographing them through a colonial lens.

"So, you start to see through the exhibit that there is an empowerment that happens when indigenous groups pick up a camera and take their own images and form their own identifies through that," she said.

In addition to the photographs themselves, "Picturing Native" will feature two lectures from Jackson and Linda Poolaw, daughter of Horace Poolaw, along with a reception at the Day Gallery from 5-7:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan 25.

Jackson will discuss contemporary photography at 3 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24, while Poolaw will discuss her father's work at 3 p.m. Jan. 25.

Erzamus said the lectures should be both informative and entertaining.

"(Jackson) is both an insider and an outsider," she said. "He is an American Indian, but he also goes to other reservations, he goes to other tribal ceremonies, and so he will kind of oscillate between those two positions. He notes that that's always really hard. It's very difficult, because you don't want to make the mistakes that Edward Curtis made. You don't want to pretend that you aren't the subjective observer, and that everything is from your point of view."

Linda Poolaw is "an amazing storyteller," Erazmus said.

"She can talk about every single photograph taken, because these are of her family members. She knew these people personally. She has become in her own right an excellent scholar and lecturer, and can talk about Kiowa life that her father depicted during this time of transition and assimilation.

"I've come to understand that any time you show work by Horace Poolaw, the family will be there," Erazmus said. "They believe in his legacy, and they want to promote that. I think her presentation will be really informative and touching, and very personal."

Although "Picturing Native" has only been open a short time, it already has been visited by a high school group, and Erazmus said she has heard "a lot of positive comments."

"I think the gallery looks just a little bit different than if we had contemporary installation art shows. I love those, (but) this is much more of a museum kind of exhibition, and there's a lot of didactic information to go along with the image. We hope that it's a lot more informational and educational, and not just, 'Hey, this looks cool.'

"We do want you to walk away thinking about how photography has played a positive and a damaging role in native identity. I think people will get that when they come out of the show," she said.

Gallery hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and on weekends by appointment. University Art Galleries will be closed Jan. 1, 2013.

For more information, e-mail Erazmus at, or call (605) 677-3177.

"Picturing Native" runs through Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013.

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