My photography explores indigenous identity, cultural assimilation, and the ancestral traditional practices of my tribe, the Shinnecock Indian Nation. Though science has solved many questions about natural phenomena, questions of identity are more abstract, the answers more nuanced. My work is a means of examining my identity and the identity of my community, specifically the unique experience of living on a sovereign Indian reservation and the problems we face.
Digital photography lets me create cinematic images. Nowhere have indigenous people been more poorly misrepresented than in American movies. My images question and disrupt the post-colonial narrative that dominates in film and media and results in damaging stereotypes, such as the “noble savage” depictions in Disney’s Pocahontas. As racial divisions and tensions reach a nationwide fever pitch, it’s more important to me than ever to offer a complex and compelling representation of indigenous people. I like making use of the cinema’s tools, the same ones directors have always turned against us (curiously familiar representations, clothing that makes a statement, pleasing lighting), to create conversations about uncomfortable aspects of post-colonialism. For example, in my 2016 project, “Nothing Happened Here,” stylized portraits of non-indigenous people impaled by arrows symbolize, in a playful way, the “white guilt” many Americans have carried through generations, and the inconvenience of co-existing with people their ancestors tried to destroy.
By looking to the past, I trace issues that plague indigenous communities back to their source. For example, research for my ongoing project “On This Site” entailed studying archaeological and anthropological records, oral stories, and newspaper archives. The resulting landscape photography honors Shinnecock’s 10,000-plus years’ presence in Long Island, New York. Working on that collection has left me with a better understanding of how centuries of treaties, land grabs, and colonialist efforts to white-wash indigenous communities have led to our resilience, our ways of interacting with our environment, and the constant struggle to maintain our autonomy.
Despite four hundred years of colonization, we remain anchored to our land by our ancient stories. The indigenous mythology that influences my photography grants me access to the minds of my ancestors, including the value they placed on our sacred lands. By outfitting and arranging models to depict those myths, I strive to continue my ancestors’ tradition of storytelling and showcase the sanctity of our land, elevating its worth beyond a prize for the highest bidder.
Featured Image: Jeremy Dennis, Sacredness of Hills, 2020. Digital Photograph. Courtesy of the artist.