Press "Enter" to skip to content

Accomplished Native American visual artists speak at Mills College

Courtesy of CN Gorman Museum

A Native American man stands with his arms outstretched. In one hand, he grips a turtle rattle; in the other, a set of paintbrushes. The words “Surrender Nothing Always,” span the lower half of the image.

This photograph, created by artist and filmmaker Shelley Niro, was one of many works that she and Hulleah Tsinhahjinnie presented to an audience of excited Mills students during a talk they gave at Danforth lecture hall last Thursday.

The artists, invited to speak by photography professor Deirdre Visser, showed work that confronted pervasive stereotypes of Native Americans and took on issues of colonization, racism and memory in a manner that was at times serious and at times witty.

Tsinhahjinnie, of Seminole, Muscogee and Dine origins, began by showing the audience a series of photographs documenting the traditional crafts of tribal members. As she displayed these photos, she told the stories behind the crafts, behind the people who made the crafts and behind the process of photographing them.

“Doing Native portraiture is much different from the mainstream,” she said. She explained that while going to take one of the photographs, she was invited to a sweat lodge in the heat of the summer. “You can’t refuse because there’s protocol. There’s protocol in the way you represent your tribe and yourself,” she said.

Tsinhahjinnie then showed images from her “Portraits Against Amnesia” series, many of which she created digitally using found photos of native people. Through these images, Tsinhahjinnie highlighted the importance of documenting history.

“We need evidence,” said Tsinhahjinnie. “When I try to teach with art, I try to establish a positive and very grounded base so that when I start showing negative images it’s more of an assault.” This is not the typical manner in which Americans are exposed to images of Native Americans, Tsinhahjinnie pointed out. “In grade school they start out with Columbus and then later the images you see don’t seem so bad.”

Some of the artwork Tsinhahjinnie showed elicited laughter from the audience, like those in her “damn” series. One of the works she showed from this series displayed a familiar black and white image of Chief Shavano, leader of the Tabequache band of Ute Indians, with a smoking gun in the forefront and a color image of a bullet-riddled Oscar Meyer Weiner-mobile in the background. In the sky near Shavano’s head floats the phrase, “DAMN! There goes the neighborhood.”

Shelley Niro also presented some of her more humorous work to the audience. She began by showing images of an installation she made in which she constructed an artificial landscape using casino imagery, complete with a teepee made out of bingo cards, a fence fashioned from cigarette wrappers and a buffalo made out of scratch lotto cards. She called the piece “The Milky Way,” because “a lot of our stories come from the sky overhead,” she said. “As time goes on, our eyes shift from the sky overhead to what’s in front of us, and that’s materialism.”

Storytelling continued as a theme as Niro introduced a series of her paintings, “The Sky Woman,” which told a traditional native creation story with a contemporary spin: the sky woman in Niro’s paintings wore sunglasses and high heels.

A filmmaker as well as a sculptor and painter, Niro closed by showing a recent video project that’s scheduled to debut at the Imaginative Film Festival in Toronto next spring.

Niro described that until the early ’70s, Native Americans were not making films, but were negatively portrayed in them. When Niro began to construct her own images, she realized “You don’t have to be the loser that’s portrayed in films. You don’t have to follow the narrative. You can make your own narrative,” she said.

The presentations concluded with hearty applause and student opinion about the event was overwhelmingly positive.

“I think it’s amazing that they’re bringing Native American voices to the forefront,” said junior “Oscar” Elizabeth Maynard. “This campus does tout a lot of diversity, but I also see a lot of monoculture.”

Junior and Native American Sisterhood Alliance member Morning Star Gali said that the speakers “hit on a lot of different issues that are relevant for today.”

Esther Lucero, a junior and college major focusing on Native American studies said, “It’s rare that we get to see images that are not stereotypical images that are not made by native folks.”

When asked how she felt about this event being hosted at Mills, Lucero responded, “It should be here. It should be everywhere. It’s about time.”