This week’s readings were particularly poignant for me, since they involved the ethical dilemmas of photographing Native American people. During the late 19th and early 20th century heyday of such photography, the pictures were often staged somewhat offensively by non-Native photographers or were pictures of sacred ceremonies that, according to the rules of Native culture, ought never to have been taken. For our class project, we are dealing with a collection of photographs of Native Americans and these similar issues come into play. Our task will be a formidable one; not only to create more useful tags and metadata on the pictures in order to make them easier to search, but a richer, perhaps more ethnographically informed metadata which makes these pictures more relevant and sensitive to Native communities. This will hopefully reduce the photographer’s original nd will help to restore and recognize some of the humanity of the person behind the picture, so that captions don’t just describe someone as a “Menominee Woman” but give that woman’s real name or clan.
I became interested in native Americans very early because I have always identified myself very strongly with this state: my sister said to me recently that I am “100 percent Wisconsin”, which I take as a compliment. I chose the project of doing these pictures because the pictures come from Langlade County, my ancestral soil
Native peoples originally had these touristic photographs taken of them for an economic purpose, but by their participation in such an economy they subverted the photographic intent to depict them as “primitives” Nancy Mithlow, a professor of Apache descent from Oklahoma, described how the capacity of images allowed Native people to subversively claim power, despite dire circumstance. I was also fascinated to learn about the history of tourism in the Wisconsin Dells and how closely this was correlated with the closing of the frontier and a changing way of life for native communities.. As always, images and narratives convey and confer power. It is the task of Native people, and hopefully yours truly, as an ally in sympathy, to repossess these narratives for their own use.
I saw the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation and museum as an attempt by the Stockbridge Mohicans to do just that; reclaim their own history for their own purposes. Sn exhibit described Mohican traditional ways and boldly, bluntly declared that the “spiritual journey of the Mohican people” was “interrupted” by the arrival of missionaries. I was also mindful of the bi-linguality of the museum’s signs, and its attempt to preserve the Stockbridge and Munsee languages The director of the museum showed us basketry, beadwork and other historical artifacts in the archives downstairs, including medals given by the President to one of their notable chiefs, John Quinney, and a copy of his heartrending speech, given upon the occasion of the tribe’s removal from New York to Wisconsin.
It is a good place, although it could use more funding and space, as all such institutions could.. All library school students must do an unpaid practicum in a library prior to graduation. Why not enroll them as a practicum site, especially if we have distance students who may already be local to the area?
At the Menominee Reservation, we were shown around the library there by Monique Tyndall. Their collections were unique and extensive. This library was geothermal and ecologically sound, and it too was doing its part for language preservation, with English and Menominee words for everything being listed up front. This gave me a great insight into the Menominee world-view, which seems descriptive of totally different things and has a totally different emphasis.
The Menominee cultural museum talked about the sturgeon and showed artifacts related to that. It also was designed in a round shape, like a medicine lodge, for people to hold ceremonies. Chief Oshkosh’s portrait was there, in his colorful top hat. My group and I were pulled into a back room and got the rare, amazing opportunity to talk to the current Menominee Elders, including a man named John G. John G. showed us how various Menominee clothes were made, and showed us the eagle-feather belt, otter-fur staff and tobacco pouches that represent the life and health of the whole Menominee Nation and its four clans. We were also invited to a Sturgeon Feast. We saw the Wolf River, which was lovely, I want to say that I am grateful for the opportunities this class has thrown my way. I’m really happy to be participating in Native communities and I hope that one day I can be doing the kind of work that makes a difference, both to them and to me. With that objective, sorting the Langlade County photo collection and my work there will enable family members to identify ancestors and kin, and reclaim them from the colonizer’s gaze, as simply people allowed to be people.