Celebrating Native American Photography’s Sovereign Gaze

Guided by a curatorial council comprising Indigenous community members and experts, the Minneapolis Institute of Art's "In Our Hands" presents an extensive and refreshing survey of Native photography.

If you’ve first encountered Native American images in 19th-century archives portraying Natives as exotic subjects, you’re sadly not alone. The Minneapolis Institute of Art redresses this historical violence and injustice through an extensive survey of Native photography from 1890 to the present, focusing on North America, which presents expansive and generous photographs of Indigenous people by Indigenous people.

A person in inuit dress standing in the snow surrounded by squares of cut raw fish
Brian Adams, ‘Iñupiaq, born 1985, Marie Rexford of Alaska Preparing Maktak for the Village’s Thanksgiving Day Feast, Kaktovik’, 2015 (printed 2023), from the series ‘I Am Inuit’. Collection of the artist, courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art

“In Our Hands” was conceptualized from a place of astonishment. “Growing up, I never knew there were so many Indigenous photographers out there, past and present,” wrote co-curator Jaida Grey Eagle in the exhibition’s catalogue. This foreword channels the notion of overdue recognition, stemming from knowledge mainly restricted to scholars and experts, which is now being shared more widely. Through more than 150 historical and contemporary works from Native American, Métis, First Nations and Inuit photographers, the show fills a critical scholarly gap while questioning the relation between the medium and the subject matter at the individual and community levels, including how subjects relate to selfhood, culture and a changing ecosystem.

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The exhibition indigenizes the canon giving dues to Jennie Ross Cobb (1881–1959) from the Cherokee nation, the first recorded Native American woman photographer. A descendant of the Trail of Tears, in which dozens of thousands of Native Americans were ethnically cleansed and forcibly deported westward following the 1830 Indian Removal Act, Ross Cobb picked up a camera at the turn of the 20th Century. She documented Native life in Indian Territory before Oklahoma became a state. The show includes several of Ross Cobb’s historical dispatches, such as women standing in the courtyard of the Cherokee seminary or during their outings. In one of her monochromatic photos, the women playfully walk on the new railway tracks. The contemporary viewer is drawn to their white-looking outfits and their togetherness.

The joy that seems to radiate from these daily slices of friendship and resilience against the trauma of forcible resettlement is contrasted with more explicit historical legacies permeating into the present. Metis photographer Rosalie Favell recalls that much is revived and acquired during formative school years, particularly when the institution is a white-dominated space. My first day of assimulation, (1996/2022) from her series “From an Early Age” superimposes a childhood photo where the artist stands by a marigold-embellished white picket lawn, with red markings. She contextualizes the image within the backdrop of Canadian assimilationist school policies, shaking up what first appears like a common first-day-of-school ritual. In her case, it embodies various layers of violence.

A stylized portrait of three individuals standing and seated outdoors under a stormy sky
Cara Romero Chemehuevi, born 1977, ‘TV Indians’, 2017. Collection of the artist, courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art

In addition to highlighting the fraught relationship with institutions that have otherized and brutalized them, Favell touches upon a running theme that ties together the various works in the show. What makes an Indigenous person Indigenous? And who has the right to qualify them? As a metis artist, she questions duality and belonging, while engaging with augmented selves in the backdrop of “blood quantum,” a contested federal measure imposed on Native tribes to limit their citizenship.

Race and identity are entangled and in constant negotiation. The show also confronts perceptions and experiences of gender identities and fluid Indigenous interpretations captured in the notion of “two-spirit.” Two-spirit individuals identify as holding both male and female spirits, a term that can be extended to encompass queerness and nonconformism. Dayna Danger used her body on the camera to reconnect with her sister in Siostra (2013). The two women stand as alter egos and shadows of one another—blonde next to brunette, with hair extensions dangling from between their legs. They stare at us, challenging our gaze and projections in a suspended silence.

A view of an art installation featuring black and white photographs and muslin dresses
Installation view of ‘In Our Hands’, showing Faye HeavyShield with Kainaiwa Nation, Blackfoot Confederacy Blood Reserve – Inkjet prints (‘Matri-liminal’) and canvas dresses (‘The Grandmothers’). Collection of the artist, courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art

Conceptual projects probe into issues of representation and translatability. Ancestors and the weight of the past hover. For example, Dana Claxton’s five large-scale panels from the series “The Mustang Suite” (2008) compositionally channel the tradition of family portraits while teasing out individual expressions. Images are juxtaposed as an allegory of Indigenous mobility, performance and role-playing. In Momma Has a Pony Girl (named History and sets her free), Claxton uses pastiche and grotesque to stage mediated agency and inherited disenfranchisement. Self-deprecating humor is used as a device to process trauma and counter-monolithic representations. It exorcizes the artist from externally imposed paradigms and unrealistic expectations. This creative choice ties Favell’s I Dreamed of Being a Warrior (1999), in which she inserts her face onto the body of Lucy Lawless’s leading role in the TV series Xena: Warrior Princess holding a Dreamcatcher. In doing so, humor measures the distance between the past and the present, the legends and tales vis-a-vis the knottier reality.

The show presents Indigenous subjects as stand-alone focal points, within their communities and their environments. It brings forward traditional artifacts, which sometimes become alive as characters in the frame. This is the case with the tipi—a potent symbol of home, shelter and resistance. Russel Albert Daniels’ image of the Standing Rock encampment and protest (Blizzard Conditions Help the DAPL Security Lights Illuminate the Oceti Sakowin Camp at the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, December 4, 2016) immortalizes discontent and alters our view of security lights which are transformed into a quiet, radiating presence of ancestors, halos that break the night’s cold blue mantle.

A black and white photo of two men in Native American headdresses inside a war plane
Horace Poolaw Kiowa, 1906–1984, ‘Horace Poolaw Aerial Photographer, and Gus
Palmer (Kiowa), Side Gunner inside a B-17 Flying Fortress, Tampa, Fla.’, c. 1944. University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, Chickasha, Horace Poolaw Collection, (45UFL13), courtesy of the Poolaw Family and MIA

In addition to the tipi, the curators have incorporated Native material culture into sculptural photography. Faye HeavyShield’s large-scale installation of photography and textiles (Clan, 2020) gives incarnation to matrilineage. Her intergenerational family portrayal emulates a 1920s studio portrait of HeavyShield’s grandmother. Her photos affirm continuity and strength, while the physical display of robes evoke cherished genealogies, heirloom, affective transmissions. We also see the persistence of materiality in Catherine Blackburn’s embroidered deer hide stretched within a wooden frame, which connects the meticulousness of bead artistry with leatherworking. The piece, presented to the public, is placed side by side with a lightbox photograph of a model turned away from the camera, wearing a similar cloth on her back like a cape (But There’s No Scar II, 2019). This serves to contextualize the object and root it within a practice, elevating craft (often wrongly minimized) as art.

Drawing on a curatorial council comprising Indigenous community members and experts, the exhibition has benefited from a pluralistic approach illustrated in the observation of consensus-based decision-making. The show also includes a reflection room for Indigenous visitors wishing to make use of it. The Minneapolis Institute of Art had previously shown artworks from more than 100 Native women artists in 2019 (“Hearts of Our People”), which already offered rich insights and learning resources.

Amid depictions of magical realism, intimate portraiture, protest images, trope reversing, and everyday documentation, there’s much that meets the eye in “In Our Hands.” We’re reminded that photography remains a captivating tool across historical eras, with the camera holder often possessing unchallenged authority over the subject matter. What changes when we photograph from a place of kinship instead of domination? The show leaves us with a sense that a veil has been lifted on an expanse that requires additional and continued scholarship and public engagement (beyond Native American Heritage Month). By its sheer diversity, Native photography evades reductive characterizations—and that’s a refreshingly great start.

In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now” is on show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art through January 14.

Celebrating Native American Photography’s Sovereign Gaze