28 June 2011


 Stoic Indians; Geri Curls; Edward Curtis;           
the Parallax Effect  

Running Around the WEST

  Indigenous  Today - Assimilated Tomarrow 
                                   An Exploration of  

Photographer, Edward Curtis and his portraits of  Native America. 

"The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other," he wrote, "consequently the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time."
Edward Curtis 1900

I work on my computer at all odd hours of the day and night processing images of Copper Canyon, and the life of every day Mexicanos  from my community that feels like a love affair with no end in sight - I continually review my archive of four years of my work living bi-nationally in Chihuahua - I am in my fourth year of documentation ; compelled to follow a feeling and following the visual lines wondering how long it will be or if the body of work, an archive will ever come to an 'end'. I live less and less state side, and find myself living a sequestered life following the lines that brought me here. I listen to HOPI radio late into the night. 

 I was inspired  by this talk about NATIVE identity / and how contemporary Americans perceive 'Indigenous', Native American cultures, tribes and  their histories. It was an interesting discussion with Dine' photographer, William R. Wilson and Professor Janet Berlo of the University of Rochester about cultural "Identity". There is much to think about - 

Monday, June 27, 2011– Parallax Effects: (listen
Do you feel Native Americans are seen by other Americans the same now as we were 120 or 150 years ago? A professor of art history and visual cultural studies thinks so, and she’s trying to change these perceptions. The Native community is also trying to re-create our image. The term “parallax effects” refers to the numerous ways culture can be presented from different points of view. Do you think images of Indians from the 19th Century have become so powerful that people have difficulty seeing us in any other way? Guests include Professor Janet Berlo of the University of Rochester (N.Y.) 

This discussion on Edward Curtis and the contemporary works of William Wilson 
caught my attention. One, the fact that Curtis worked for 30 years on pursuing his vision making a historical documentation of the Indigenous Cultures of the Americas. Curtis' photos are widely known and are available at numerous Stop N Go's through out the west on dollar postcards and coffee cups; campy authentic 'Indian' art on Rt 66 and wild west outposts adjacent to Diary Queens AND simultaneously  sell for thousands of dollars in fine ART galleries through out the designer southwest in high end galleries; I find it a bit disconcerting and ironic,  Edward Curtis, one of the great documenters of our time, left this incredible legacy, like so many artists, died broke and alone. Yet his work stands the testament of time. 

William Wilson work is strong in conception; pushing boundaries and as a Dine' photographer, shares his thought provoking images within the context of his own culture. Powerful. Beautiful and well conceived. I look forward to explore the work he curated for the VISION PROJECT. I was also inspired that he is making a greenhouse 'hogan' to collect traditional stories related to food. Another aspect of photography to document culture and how artists/photographer's explore their own cultural identities -   He teaches photography at IAIA. I actually considered what it would be like to return to 'school' again if I could afford it after hearing this talk - to gain academic credibility - to be within the context of the regions that continue to captivate me - but then again - it's a matter of just doing your work....and following your lines and exploring your medium of expression. 

Check out the powerful work by Dine' Photographer, Will Wilson...

My dad and Curtis 

Two   Marines.   Family Reunion  Blue Mesa  AZ 
Buffalo Dancer  John Running

I have been influenced by Curtis' work all my life it seems. I grew up with the comparison of his work to my dad, John Running's  work-  All these visually attuned designers,art directors, and photographers, knew of my father's work because Running was renowned for his 'Native American' portraiture and classic cowboys. Running's work epitomized the spirit of 'The WEST'.

My dad would pull me out of my miserly high school existence so I could get some worldly experience. It was the beginning of my  learning to become a photographer as my father's  assistant. Traveling with my dad, road trips and flying across the country are some of my favorite memories- we continued to travel together on assignment for many years to follow. 

We went  Washington DC and on to NYC to present an audio/visual show on Indian Water Rights in the early 80's at the US Senate where the Watergate hearings took place - and atop the TIME Life building. It was my first time in a high rise building over 5 stories tall; and I got stuck in the elevator trying to navigate a huge box of projectors; Dad walked out and the doors closed on me. Down  I went and back up again - there was a garbage strike and there were huge bags of trash all over the roof tops and sidewalks- I slept on a futon in a loft and watch Saturday Night LIVE, LIVE from from NYC !! Fiorucci and Canal Street Jeans - I came back to Arizona feeling mighty Hip . 

But really what has always stayed with me was the meeting of great designers and visionaries. I wanted to be an art director, graphic designer/illustrator or so I thought.  I will always remember walking into the Museum of Modern Art in NYC to meet  James Miho whom we never met before. We walked right into each other amidst  the crowd of strangers as if we had been long time family friends. I would meet him again years later when I attended California College of Arts and Crafts on the school lawn. We would later meet designer and Art Director, B. Martin Peterson; and our crazy Fetish photographer friend, Eric Kroll. Even in the big city, we were connected because of photography,design and the western appeal of the cultures and landscape. 

The only time I ever got 'grounded' was for my first ever hangover;  what was a dad to do?  He  was so diplomatic that he asked ME what WE should do about it and jointly agreed I should  be grounded for a week - meaning no hanging out at Alpine Pizza. Miraculously that week, dad pulled me out of school for three days to meet Art Director Hans Teensma to photograph, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater Being the rad dad that he is he never made me make it up - 

I still think of sipping ice tea with the retired senator instead of being in school helping my dad make one of his classic Running portraits; there I was flying  a shiny board in front of a stand of cactus. Senator Goldwater,  loved  the peoples and landscape of the southwest and made an incredible body of work. 

I wish I could say something akin  about  Arizona's current government besides their obvious racist and narrow minded leadership and no vision. But I digress.... This post  is about the LOVE for our amazing cultural diversity ! Another story for another time - these were the formative experiences that have  led me to my choice to pursue photography as a way of life ; perhaps that is  why my dad is still the biggest supporter of this extended stint in Mexico that has completely changed the course of my life ! He continually tells me to do my work. 

Can I blame Vermeer's paintings for his quality of light and good ol' Curtis for his photographic passion  that has influenced my father's camera's eye and love for the lands and cultures of the Greater Southwest?  Curtis and Running, their work has defined a certain way I see and perceive portraiture. I sometimes play with these styles -  I look to the past to give a look and feel to my work. 

Some say it's anthropology - others conclude it's exploitation of a perception of what defines being  "Indian"; "Native"; "Indigenous". Both Curtis and Running (dad) are critiqued  at times for their being "White, non Indians "- I know that my dad has also been embraced by his Indian friends because of his 'good heart' and that his  Dine' "Navajo" friends would say , "his pictures tell the truth".  

By the expressions and what Curtis was allowed to photograph, it looks to me  like he was trusted by the people he photograph. I can't say for sure but that's a feeling I get when I look at his work. Both photographers  have been drawn to  document the Indigenous cultures of their time and place in history. Theirs is not strictly  an objective viewpoint but is also a personal love for the people they photograph. 

Snake Dance Edward Curtis 
 Hopi Snake Priest : Edward Curtis  

Edward Curtis has been celebrated and critiqued for his Native American portraits. Regardless of what camp you land in - what remains true in the proof of the work is  it is a spectacular collection of Native Indigenous  America - spanning  over thirty years and twenty volumes. I had NO idea - 

I am awed  by his dedicated vision and obsession to follow his passion. 
He followed his calling and he took the time. Now people want to have instant access to cultures and instant enlightenment. I wonder what he felt and how he  kept his courage up. Who did he speak to in his moments of doubt.

How de we see and define Native"culture" from different viewpoints? How do others see "us" and "them" ? how do we perceive or know "ourselves"? Sometimes we get trapped in stereotypes of  what we think people should act like or look like for that matter. What is it that fuels the dialogue ? The hateful retortic of racism? Some folks try to get to a common humanity and others fight like hell to divide and segregate because of the definitions of 'the word'.

I remember being about three years of age going to the pueblos in New Mexico when my dad was following his photographic passions. The family would pile into the green VW bus and we would camp out and go to San Ildefonso , AcomaZuni pueblos. Signs at the pueblos would say ' NO WHITES'. But our mother, Helen, was a beautiful brown skinned woman and from the West Indies, from the island of Trinidad. It sounded Native to me - I often felt sorry for my white father ; and had no understanding of  the differences of color or cultures ; Indian way always involves teasing and my mom looked like a beautiful Puebloan or Navajo woman... we were the undefinable 'brown children'. 
I can still remember sitting in the back of our green VW bus and the tribal representatives of the pueblos would teasingly say, "we'll keep your wife and kids" cause we were brown like them  but not my dad with his blue eyes. 
The memory still is a bit disconcerting. I felt sorry for him and I barely could comprehend the differences of us and them. The photos my dad made still are vivid in my memories.  The smell of the kitchens; the firing of pots,all the grandmas; the pageantry, beauty and mysteries of the ceremonies I saw as a small child return  to me all these years later and influences my love for this adopted land of Mexico I now call home. 

As an image maker I have to question my own work documentation of  different cultures other than my own. I am not Mexican or "Native American" or am I ?  I was raised around Mexican and Indian people,  does there culture become apart of me?  or am I a 'Wanna Be"? Indian, Mexican - or were we all suppose to assimilate and take on the dominate culture and join the "Jones" of Americana? I hardly know anything about my own heritage - Chinese who escaped China's Revolution to work on the Panama Canal and lived in Suriname ; and my African Slave roots who were brought to the Americas. The mixing of bloods and cultures with all the taboos regardless. What is assimilation? 

In my own work I wonder if I am perpetuating a 'stereotype' ? or making a historical record/archive?  Is it an identity "play"? an imposed reflection? or a anthropological documentary of a time and place of people and history?  What does "Native", "Indigenous" mean ? Throw in what's PC; Should I feel shame or be more 'white' than "brown"? or am I a "brown-a person of color" reacting to the definitions because of what I look like? or identify with?   

I am brown because I have African Slave blood in me... but I am not African American; I am more Afro Caribbean in DNA but feel more Mexican because I was born into a Mexican community.  My parents moved to Flagstaff,AZ from the island of Trinidad where I was conceived so my dad to attend NAU on the GI bill and study anthropology. There were no Trinidadians in a mountain town of Arizona in 1965. It has been a point of redefinition - learning how to articulate in words and in images; at times disconcerting and I have to back up and look for the meaning of words and rewrite them. 

What is  the definition of what constitutes 'Native'. Does it mean " Indian" or does it mean 'Native' to the land; like the line in the  song, Train to New Orleans,  "I'm your Native son..." does being born in the Americas regardless of our colors, and ethnic backgrounds mean were Native Arizonans ? or Alaskans ? Americans?   Are 'Mexican's' Native? or 'Illegals' ?  It sometimes is painful and confusing to sort out the definitions -  I get caught in the definitions because of our last name RUNNING; which is actually Swedish, which I of course don't look Swedish at all,except to people who are Swedish -  Our last name has  often has been mistaken as short for "Running BEAR" or some adage that may reference some kind of "Indian" heritage. Even now when I cross the border -  although my passport says American Citizen, I sometimes have been asked what kind of American am I -  "No, I am not Mexican - SI, mi gusta habla en Español -  No I am not Indian - I am actually Chinese, Black and White I say smiling ; PURO American thanks to the US Marine Corp !! It can be interesting and nerve wracking - it can be scary too as I have been with friends when they were racially attacked - It is not something I grew up knowing but witnessed sometimes and it was horrible - I still get caught in the definition or prison of checked boxes of race to define who, or what I am or belong to - I  still have to rethink my words / images  and the people I care for the most make me rethink what am I saying/ feeling/ thinking ??? 




Sometimes I see "New Agers" and Germans, Wild for Winnetou, Wanna Be Indians dressing more  "Indian" than traditional 'Native' peoples.  I remember when the Jheri Curl look hit the rez and everyone sort of had 'black' hair in the late 70's.  Rare to see the long traditional Dine hair style - a bun wrapped with long stands of white wool; or Pueblo style stepped bangs that represented clouds the  and beautiful whirls of hair on the young maidens  people now refer to as "the Princess Leah hair do"  to represent the flowers of youth.


                                            Weekend Indians in Germany

Meanwhile in the 80's  men and women were sporting the Michael Jackson inspired Jheri curly mullet hairstyle that is now iconic - the 90's long in your face, heavy metal layered hair;   Year 2000 - E- all of the above mixed with Rastafarian dreads and inner city gangsta, hip hop and punk rock and death metal - shaved heads and black baggy, prison culture style permeates REZ culture -  When in Rome, do as the Romans do. 

The Jheri Curl LOOK with Michael J! 

are documentary reflections of the contemporary juxtapositions of tradition, modern times; the wasted landscape and the enduring beauty of what remains. 

I  gaze into the Kivas at night to see the families  sitting together in their  Phoenix Suns T-shirts and tennis shoes  holding babies and gifts of corn - the towering shadows of Katchinas dance behind modern portraits on the ancient adobe walls. Modern culture and  the effects of 'assimilation' and TV Brady Bunch consumer culture can be found more and more in the far reaches of the world - I often am stunned as I watch the changes before my eyes. 

I have been at ceremonies on the rez for the dances and remember 4th of July Pow Wows in downtown Flagtown; All the tribes came to Flagstaff in the 70's for 4th of July weekend. It was crazy,colorful, and a celebration of all the cultures of the region. It had it's dark side with extreme displays of drunkenness that hold painful memories of the efforts of alcohol amongst the visiting tribes; pride; profit;getting your kicks on  Rt 66; KC and the Sunshine band and Coca Cola Cowboys, the A.I.M.sters, 49's and Injun Kars . Forty years later, 4th of July is more is more of a predominately homogenous patriotic celebration in spite of the Hopi show.  Pow Wow back in the day was a surreal world for us kids. Stoic Zuni Women with amazing pots balanced on their heads; Navajo Princesses; Aztec dancers; Grass Dancers; Fire Dancers; and the Apache Spirit dancers- who made you stand closer to your mom so you wouldn't get "kidnapped" - It was an amazing colorful event ; All America, all Indian, Five and Dime popcorn and Icee slushees; the smell of the camp fires and rows upon rows of every kind of Native American arts and crafts; Pow Wow, rodeo and carnival - an experience . Everyone in the best Western, Indian, Hippy wear - milling through the mud of the summer's monsoon rains. 

Still in these 'modern' times, traditional Katsina dancers pray for rain on the mesas maintaining traditions that have been passed down for thousands of years of migration and communing with the Spirits of the land of this world. Ancient ceremonies to keep the world in balance . The Katsina's represent the elements of the natural world; clouds, rainbows, stars; The scene still looks like a time when  Edward Curtis photographed but different with the changing times. Stepped adobe pueblos rise above the mesas now with  satellite dishes;  people on the roof tops, sitting in rows in the shade near the plaza, the younger generations are wearing Bob Marley and Motor Head Heavy Metal T-shirts ; Homie Gangsta Rez Style, black and baggy silhouettes stand on the roof tops; Children in traditional dress and wearing Sponge Bob Square Pants and Dora the Explorer t-shirts - the  multifamily generations - tradition meet mass marketing brands; still traditional grandmothers in colorful shawls and  old  Grandpas sport classic western shirts with snap pearl buttons, with their family heirloom Squash blossom necklaces, a turquoise earring;  a cowboy hat or a colorful scarf around their head. Now there's baseball hats and every kind of graphic logo under the sun. 

My painting from one of my photos in collaboration with my ex husband, Dine'  artist, writer Shonto Begay

What's defines what  a real Indian look like these days ? Hollywood ? Louis Lamour? Mel Gibson? Who defines our identities ?  Are they blue aliens like in recent movie, AVATOR? Or do we really want to perceive ourselves  as cartoon figures in cyber world?   Are we apt to believe the movies and still not get the lesson that the land is still Sacred ? Many of these tribes had to adopted and usually by force, to assimilate into the dominant society. How is it Native American Boarding Schools were justified in their imposed views towards non-whites? If they resisted they were killed - forcefully removed from their families; raped; tortured; punished for speaking their own languages; taught to hate their own cultural identity. The effects now are high rates of alcoholism and suicide; diabetes and subsistent living on many of the reservations created during the encroachment westward ho!  What has been the long term effects  of Manifest Destiny  ?? 


Perhaps one of the strongest bodies of work I've ever come across is by photographer, Aaron Huey. For a little history lesson do yourself the favor and watch his TED talk about LIFE on the Pine Ridge Reservation. 


It's the year 2011. The Flagstaff City Council has over ridden logic and foresight and has approved the diabolical plan to pump reclaimed water on the sacred mountain - The San Francisco Peaks.  The University of Northern Arizona, NAU wants to cut down the old grandfather trees for more modernity at the expense of history and more collage students who will take on huge debt; the quaintness and multiethnic community that I grew up in disappears - along with the melting of the polar caps. 

Question is why do a majority of  NON NATIVES have such a narrow perception  of  INDIAN people? It is quite stunning - shocking, sad. Why do so many people stuck in a rut  with limited and outdated ideas of who are Indigenous peoples?  Why are contemporary environmental struggles  still play out  like the ol' black and white Indian and Cowboy movies my dad grew up with? 

Why isn't there millions of people  as concerned about the state of the natural world? or care about the effects of logging, mining and water issues ? It seems obvious our planet is in a state of duress - 

Listen to their cultural concerns about the Sacredness of mountains and trees ? unless they're wearing feathers or is there something that we just want to believe these endearing cultures have disappeared so we don't have to be accountable for the horrible history that came with the self appointed right  that  harold the making of  United States of America  Manifest Destiny ??? 

Our 'civilized' world continues to desecrated and destroy the forests of the Amazon and the last enclaves of wilderness; Big business wants to mine the earth and displace traditional peoples across the globe. At what expense to the well being of the world? 

The 1973 Indian  Band, XIT "Color Nature Gone' is a prophecy of our times.... 

The genius of culture is the ability to survive in impossible conditions, Davis concluded. We cannot afford to lose any of that variety of skills, because we are not only impoverished without it, we are vulnerable without it. 
Wade Davis, The Wayfinders

My Dad's work :  
John Running HONOR Dance:
Amazon.com Review of HONOR DANCE.

It is a widely held--but false--notion that the Hopi do not want to be photographed because they feel the camera will steal their spirit. The real reason, says John Running, is that "they don't want photographs taken that make them feel like curiosities." Running, in the words of a Navajo friend, "takes pictures of the truth," which not only describes his remarkably candid photographs, but also explains how he got them. Here in color and black and white are images of Native Americans of many tribes, deliberately and proudly posing for portraits in their homes and Running's makeshift studios, doing ceremonial dances, and above all, being themselves. 

Mentor extraordinaire,  RUNNING and the Studio BABEs ;
Muses and visual artists :
Ceramic artist, Chelsea Atwood,

 Photographers and Muses : Margeux Bestard  and Kristen Caldon.
Hopi Traditional Dancer
Dine' Musician, RC Nakai    John Running 

Visual explorations  of my work influenced by the Edward Curtis aesthetic 
with my friend and muse, Rex Bizaholoni over the years.

Time Travel shot for Arizona Highways 2006 

Time Travel shot for Arizona Highways 2006

Time Travel shot for Arizona Highways 2006
Homage to an old hat 

Paquime ; Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, MX

Confluence of Havasupai
and the Colorado River Grand Canyon 

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