March 23, 2012

Fur-trade reenactors in photo exhibit

Photographer Tom Jones shoots portraits of sincere white folks dressed in native garb

Playing Indian

By Steve MooreThe collection was shot at historic reenactments of the French fur trade era called Rendezvous. Participants come from all over the country to set up camp, display furs, and adopt elements of what they believe is a Native American lifestyle. They assiduously rely on old photographs—often stereotypical—to "authentically" dress the part.

Jones, an assistant professor of photography at UW and member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, turns the camera around by photographing the reenactors.

Walking in, I thought of the Indian Guides, a scout-like YMCA program I'd been in as a kid, complete with feathers on our heads and war paint on our faces. I'm also an alum of Illinois, where Chief Illiniwek danced at halftime. I once thought such things weren't really racist, yet eventually I came to understand that they are. So I steeled myself, a bit defensive. Would this be an exercise in white guilt?

Refreshingly, the answer is no. The 13 beautiful, life-size color photographs feel honest, respectful and, if anything, benign. They cast no judgment, though Jones wittily shoots the reenactors in solitary, almost heroic poses, in full regalia with serious expressions, reminiscent of the "noble savage" treatment.

In so doing, he shows us the meticulous detail of their dress, over which they have clearly labored. We can also see in their eyes that they're sincere. Jones says he learned through doing the project that many reenactors have Indian ancestry, and his photos appear to show an understanding that his subjects wish to honor, not offend, Native Americans. He describes them as "people playing Indian," but, he says, "they come at this with a good heart."

I cringed at a reenactor's Indian name—Joe Makes Trouble—as well as how silly some of them look. One wears a top hat with feathers, looking half Indian, half chimney sweep. But as a white man having looked at this series of mirrors—an Indian's photographs of white people dressing up as Indians, based on photos of Indians taken by white people—I'm struck by the idea that no one can say exactly what anyone's reaction will be. Ultimately, the exhibit is as neutral as its title.
Comment:  Naturally, my view of this exhibit is less benign than the author's. The reenactors may want to "honor" Indians, but who says that's what they're doing?

Among the questions the article doesn't answer are:

  • The fur trade happened in the Great Lakes area before photography existed. Do the costumes reflect that? Or are they taken from Edward Curtis photos done long after the fur trade ended?

  • Are all the reenactors dressed as stereotypical Plains Indians? Does the accompanying text say anything about this stereotyping? Does it note the diversity of America's Indians?

  • Do all the reenactors have "funny Indian names" like "Joe Makes Trouble"? How else are they belittling the cultures they supposedly respect?

  • What's the justification for the umpteenth example of showing Indians as they lived in the distant past? Does the text say anything about modern Indians? Are the reenactors even aware that Indians still exist?

  • What do present-day Indians think about these reenactors and this exhibit? Where's their input into this?

  • What do visitors take away from the exhibit? Do they actually learn anything about Indians? Do they learn about the breadth and depth of Indian cultures? Or do they get their stereotypical beliefs--that all Indians are like the Plains Indians of the past--reinforced? If that's the case, how is this exhibit "neutral"?

  • The fact that an Indian took the photographs is interesting. But unless the exhibit answers some or all of these questions, it doesn't really matter. The exhibit may do more harm than good no matter who the photographer is.

    For more on Indian wannabes, see Wannabes Obscure Real Indians, Mythical Indian = "National Mascot," and Why Wannabes Wanna Be.

    1 comment:

    shichils said...

    HI - off topic but I just saw this post by a self styled comic on at

    It is a rather incomprehensible post to me - and singularly unfunny - and she hits all the favorite stereotypes: dumb word play on 'reservation', scalping, and casinos. Just weird.