By Steve Moore
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.
Among the questions the article doesn't answer are:
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.