longer is the camera held by an outsider looking in, the camera
is held with brown hands opening familiar worlds. We document ourselves
with a humanizing eye, we create new visions with ease, and we can
turn the camera and show how we see you." Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie1
encounters between photography and Native Americans have a history
laced with racism, colonialism, broken treaties, captivity, and
romanticism. Before the medium found its artistic outlets it purveyed
so-called factual evidence by functioning as a mode of one-sided
documentation serving governmental and scientific purposes. Many
stereotypes generated by early images of Native American life and
culture continue to be insidiously pervasive.
Native American/First Nations photography, however, is a genre unto
its own. Overcoming and confronting negative historical stereotypes,
many artists choose the medium as their preferred conduit for political
expression. While the techniques of photography are based in western
history, its appropriation by Indigenous artists has generated a
sovereign space; a territory created, propagated, and continually
mediated by Native artists, authors, and curators.
inherent power of the photograph to validate truth, fact and history
fuels much of Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie's eloquent artwork. She does
not seek approval or validation from an outside non-Native entity,
but as one of the first generation of artists founding this dynamic
landscape, she documents her views with self-experienced Native
authority. She explores her own life, politics, and community while
at the same time she transgresses geographically and ideologically
imposed boundaries in order to consider her work amongst a global
strong Indigenous artistic base, ignited by her father, fused with
her mother's commitment to community and protocol created the catalyst
for an artist of political conviction. Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinie
was born in 1954 into the Bear and Raccoon Clans of the Seminole
and Muscogee Nations, and born for the Tsinajinnie Clan of the Diné
Nation. Raised in Phoenix and Rough Rock, Arizona, she attended
the Institute of American Indian Arts and completed her BFA from
California College of Arts and Crafts (1981). The Bay area became
Tsinhnahjinnie's home for the next twenty years (1977-1997) and
it was during that time that Tsinhnahjinnie developed strong intertribal
friendships and ties. She was active with several native organizations
serving as a board member for Intertribal Friendship House, Oakland
and the American Indian Contemporary Art Gallery in San Francisco.
Simultaneously creating art for her community in the form of newsletters,
posters, t-shirts, and photographic documentation she began exhibiting
her 'fine art' work in a variety of venues.
ongoing collaborations with Indigenous organizations Tsinhnahjinnie
photographs and documents a variety of gatherings, events and conferences.
Twelve portraits form the "Native American and Hawaiian Women of
Hope" series (1997) commissioned by Union 1199, Bread and Roses
in New York. Created entirely for educational purposes the series
features women who possess "an unwavering commitment and dedication
to the struggle of their people to survive and flourish as distinct
Tsinhnahjinnie teaches digital and multimedia art to young students
in Northern Minnesota, Cass Lake and Nett Lake. Over the years,
she has also taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa
Fe, the San Francisco Art Institute, and the California College
of Arts and Crafts, Oakland. Tsinhnahjinnie's community activities
were officially recognized when she received the First Peoples Fund
Community Spirit Award (2000). During 2002, Tsinhnahjinnie individually
photographed twelve California Native American women, as part of
a state-wide documentation project of sixty-three women, representing
twelve ethnicities, to promote California's Breast and Cervical
Cancer Early Detection Program. Currently, she is compiling a related
video public service announcement.
to her family legacy, Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie is a traveler who views
the world from her own unique perspective. Similarly, the people
in her artworks frequently transgress time, space, and technology.
Always riding on political currents, the sitters often look out
of the artwork to ponder, question and challenge what they see.
At other times they are given agency through Tsinhnahjinnie's artistic
voice of social commentary and critique.
the multi-cultural wave of the 1980s Tsinhnahjinnie's works toured
throughout North America and the world. Her works during this time,
such as the "Metropolitan Indian Series" (1984) "acknowledged the
persistent presence of Native people in urban cities and attested
to the communities they built." Figures continued to roam in other
of Tsinhnahjinnie's series. For example in, "Mattie Rides a Bit
Too Far", Mattie a young Native girl, sits atop a Pendleton blanket
in the back of a 54 Chevy seeing the world outside of her car window,
she visits "South Africa, South America or South Dakota", all the
while considering global social injustices. It was in the early
90s that Tsinhnahjinnie's work rapidly grew in popularity exhibiting
in both native and non-native spaces and publications which resulted
in several awards, fellowships and artist residencies.
reaching her 40th birthday in 1994, Tsinhnahjinnie's personal reflections
of her family, political views, and life experiences are manifested
in a major series "Memoirs of an Aboriginal Savant". Created digitally,
this electronic diary "masquerades as a book" of fifteen vintage
pages filled with photographs, illustrations, and the artist's first-person
voice. Brainstorming the series with a group of 'techie' friends
over dinner one evening, the idea arose to utilize yellowed and
aged paper from the blank pages of old books. Tsinhnahjinnie and
her friends appreciated the paradox that authenticity could be digitally
created through the aged pages of a "non-existent book".
an empowered author and artist, Tsinhnahjinnie writes herself into
history, through prose, images, and stories retaining what Lucy
Lippard has described as "esthetic sovereignty" by writing herself
into being "the way that I see myself rather than being interpreted
by others". In the "Introduction" Tsinhnahjinnie states that the
viewer can "Journey to the center of an aboriginal mind without
the fear of being confronted by the aboriginal herself." Filled
with emotions, Tsinhnahjinnie's memoirs look inward to document
moments and thoughts in the artist's life. At the same time, strong
political statements are directed outward to the viewer and are
intermixed with poignant storytelling and deeply personal reflections.
of childhood memories, Tsinhnahjinnie starts on page '1954', her
birth year, sharing family memories and stories with the reader.
Her great grandmother, grandmother, mother and father relate stories
of strength, survival, endurance and knowledge. Through her own
memories of high school, friends, experiences, and dreams Tsinhnahjinnie
looks back at these "thought-provoking" moments through the political
eyes of a mature Aboriginal savant. Throughout the memoirs, as with
a majority of her works, Tsinhnahjinnie expresses her political
views with strong conviction.
of her most political and widely published installations, "Nobody's
Pet Indian" (1993) marks a significant moment in Tsinhnahjinnie's
career and is included in two pages of the electronic diary. In
its fullest form the installation occupies an entire room, as it
did in 1993 at the San Francisco Art Institute and is comprised
of several 40" x 30" black and white posters featuring Indigenous
artists, activists, friends, and family who are surrounded by their
own words or Tsinhnahjinnie's "imposed identification labels" .
installation pointedly confronts the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts
Act signed into legislation by President George Bush. The act requires
artists who identify themselves as American Indian/Native American
to present written documentation of their Native bloodlines . One
of the complexities of the debate revolves around the fact that
such proof of identity can only be obtained through the US Government,
where only members of federally recognized tribes may even apply.
Such narrow qualifications lead to exclusions for many Native Americans.
As Theresa Harlan, photo-historian and critic, specifies, many people
might not be on state census rolls due to urban relocation, or adopted
children might not have access to enrollment information, or all
the members of tribes who have not attained the required federal
recognition. Heated debates around this law persevere today, kindled
by the recent exhibition of the installation at the San Jose Art
Museum (2002). The installation challenges the entire notion of
blood quantum as being an entirely western concept, born out of
a "myth of pureness" and comparable to WWII Nazi beliefs of blood
impurities and practices of governmental numbering systems.
no matter how hard my mind is bombarded with thoughts of Americanization,
my mind will always return to the stories of Native survival. The
books in my mind contain endless pages of Native intelligence, Native
resistance, Native pride, countless pages I will carry for the rest
of my life."
documenting her own history, Tsinhnahjinnie in "The Damn Series"
(1997) shifts her focus to reclaim and liberate images embedded
in colonialist history, firmly placing them within an Indigenous
context. Consisting of seven pieces the series is Tsinhnahjinnie's
most widely exhibited and published series to date. The artist utilizes
digital collage to alter the figures' context and gives agency to
them by expressing her voice and thoughts. The series combines subtlety,
resolute statements, and humor that is deeply rooted within Native
knowledge. The popularity of this series, can be attributed to the
power of the works to engage the varied international, US and native
audiences. No matter what degree of Native knowledge and experience
the viewer possesses the art works are enabled to initiate a dialogue.
exhibition of the series at the Barbican Art Gallery in London (1998)
two pieces, "This is not a commercial, this is my homeland", and
"Damn! There goes the Neighborhood!", garnered much attention from
viewing audiences and press. These two works have been repeatedly
requested for publication, lectures, and exhibition. The iconic
southwestern landscape of red mittens and mesas produces a clichéd
sense of recognition, a connection of place that is accompanied
by the emblazoned artist statement prompting viewers to distinguish
the fictional commercial landscape from the reality that this is
sovereign Diné land, known in English as Monument Valley.
it is the popularity of 'Damn! There goes the Neighborhood!' that
is perhaps even more intriguing. Despite the lack of cultural knowledge
of the central figure, Shavano , and the Oscar Meyer Wiener-mobile
by international audiences, the majority of the press featured this
particular artwork. As a research assistant for the Barbican exhibition,
I was invited to conduct a gallery tour and when I reached this
piece there was a noticeable shift in my audience's inquiries. The
visual humor of Shavano's smoking gun and the bullet-riddled Wiener-mobile
in combination with the familiar phrase, possesses the power to
engage viewers. Shortly thereafter, the series was featured in a
German language publication as well as exhibition and publication
in Slovenia , followed by several North American publications and
exhibitions, with the most recent showing this year at the George
conjunction with the exhibition Message Carriers (1993), Harlan
raises the question of "who controls and interprets the message.
So often, the task of interpretation is handed to non-native art
historians or anthropologists who cannot properly evaluate the work
because they do not have access to native experience or ownership."
The extent to which audiences understand and interpret contemporary
native artwork can be proportionately equated with the viewer's
possession (or not) of Native 'cultural capital'. Adapting the term
from Bourdieu , I use of 'Native cultural capital' as a conscious
and unconscious acquisition of Native knowledge through all forms
of education and experience that spans one's lifetime. Tsinhnahjinnie's
works, like many contemporary artists, are created entirely from
an Indigenous perspective for Native audiences. Her work engages
wide audiences at the immediate levels of understanding but reveals
multi-layered complexities to those who have the ability to bring
Native knowledge to the viewing experience.
2000, after twenty years as a professional artist, Tsinhnahjinnie
was invited to attain her MFA from the University of California,
Irvine where she focused her studio work on digital videography.
During her two years in this program, Tsinhnahjinnie thought deeply
about the positive aspects of hybridity. She expresses the need
to "embrace change, rather than scorn it. To think positively about
hybridity of race, techniques for survival, hybridity in art, hybridity
to create work on and off the reservation, digital, pottery, sound,
video, light, conceptual art...the list is endless." The result
was Tsinhnahjinnie's powerful video installation Aboriginal World
the world's spotlight on the Middle East, this continuously looping,
four and a half minute video has continually generated political
discussion since its first exhibition in 2002. The collaboration
between Tsinhnahjinnie and performance artist Leilani Chan originally
intended to search for "common grounds in other political situations
in the world by analyzing political tactics and having compassion
for other people's causes." In this video, we see a bound woman
(Chan) wearing a hajib designed of American flags. She surveys land
of the Navajo reservation while pow wow music pulsates strong and
loud, and finally she reaches the distorted sound waves of Pacific
ocean. Screening the piece on three huge layered panels, Tsinhnahjinnie
visually alludes to the layers of political complexities that surround
the huge figure who perseveres with her search under oppression.
At UC Irvine, a false gallery floor was removed to expose a mound
of earth and an Indian head penny while Native music emanated from
the ground "reclaiming and reminding who the land belongs to. The
survival of songs and culture, survival when people are silenced
but the song is still here. A lot of things had to go underground
to survive and then they come out again when the time is appropriate."
Tsinhnahjinnie challenges the selective memories of land ownership
and experience. More specifically, "how the United States recognizes
Israeli memory of land dating back 2000 years but when it comes
to memory of Native land, they won't look back even 50 years
when 500 years ago it was all native land."
the events of 9/11, the installation has acquired a new political
depth through the subsequent escalation of political tensions and
the Iraq war. For Tsinhnahjinnie the installation "became even more
significant as so many people blindly embraced patriotism without
looking at the complexities of the situation." The US's current
position, as an "occupying power" of foreign land is parallel for
Tsinhnahjinnie to "the whole history of native lands in the US and
it goes back to the phrase "America is stolen land". The installation
encompasses all of those ideas -- the complexities of war, land,
occupation, and colonialism. Native people can't forget that. Native
people must not forget our political history."
in 2000, Tsinhnahjinnie has become fascinated with exploring the
cyberspace of Ebay, where she frequently finds and buys vintage
photographs of Indigenous people worldwide. She bids against high
powered commercial dealers and collectors, and often wins when the
sitter is in non-native attire. For dealers, monetary value resides
in vintage photographs of Native Americans only when they are dressed
in regalia, or fit "the white man's code of Indian, wearing feathers
and buckskin". But then the dealers are looking at the photographs,
and perhaps cannot see that the sitter is actually looking at them.
Unlike many 'collectible' vintage Native American photographs, the
gazes in these portraits are not voyeuristic, not anthropological,
not part of government documentation, and not about the photographer.
In these portraits the authority and power is held entirely by the
subjects who control their own identity and look directly out of
the photograph in the way they wish to be represented.
the portal of digital technologies Tsinhnahjinnie transports the
subjects of her vintage photo postcards through time and space to
convey her own interpretations and artistic views. For her, the
series "is about not forgetting these images that are floating around
deemed of little value by collectors, but should be valued and collected
by native people." As photo postcards they were frequently used
as correspondence and acquire even more power of individual and
collective memory for Tsinhnahjinnie when there is a hand written
message from the sitter or a relative.
original ten portraits in Tsinhnahjinnie's "Portraits Against Amnesia"
(2003) series were all of postcard size but in their remembering
Tsinhnahjinnie has made them into large 20x30 inch prints, now too
large to be misplaced or forgotten. Some of the figures are larger
than life-size and gaze directly out of the photograph to the viewer,
leaving their time period behind to be present in the new millennium.
The latest digital printing technologies produce a golden luminous
finish within the sepia tones that empowers the portraits to fight
all forms of amnesia.
a memorial work, "Grandmother", Tsinhnahjinnie shows her Seminole
grandmother surrounded by yellow dots which represent all the family
spirits that helped her throughout her life. "The spirits that help
you before you enter this world, the spirits that help you while
you're in this world, and the spirit you will become." Her father,
Diné artist Andrew Tsinajinnie is featured in "Dad" and remains
deeply influential for Tsinhnahjinnie because of her admiration
for his endurance and life long commitment to creating art until
his passing in 2000. Photographed in military attire he is surrounded
by elements from his own artworks. A Diné hogan with a plume
of smoke sits behind him and was the way in which he signed many
of his early paintings. "The Mule Rider" (1965) emerges from behind
him as a memory of his runaway story from school, a story he told
his seven children many times. Here again Tsinhnahjinnie incorporates
the story into history, as she did within "Memoirs of an Aboriginal
Savant" as well as a recently video in his name.
the two dapper and handsome young men who commissioned their portraits,
"Che-bon" dons a tilted hat and is dressed in a stylish suit reminding
Tsinhnahjinnie "how fashionable some of the dudes were!". Poor fixation
of the photograph has resulted in a chemical effect that fades and
disintegrates the image. Combined with the slight blurriness of
the sitter the effects render a romantic ethereal quality which
was further enhanced by the artist. The other bow-tied young man,
Istee-cha-tee Aspirations, poses with a hand on his hip, purposefully
casual with his foot resting on the chair, in what Tsinhnahjinnie
views as a political stance. She draws focus to his hand, a loosely
closed fist where she sees his thumb as "an indirect way of pointing
at people, very political, a gesture that former President Clinton
often utilized." Two young children were taken to studios for their
portraits and while "Boy-in-the-moon" sits atop a studio crescent
moon in a room full of bright stars, "Hoke-tee hovers vividly above
the surface of the moon. Another view of colonialism Tsinhnahjinnie
visualizes "man going to the moon trying to claim it, but when he
gets there, there is a little aboriginal baby floating around on
her little space scooter. So colonismo spaceman picks up his bags
and takes off because it is just too much!" Remembering one of her
earlier works, Mattie Rides a Bit Too Far, she consciously reverses
and compares the viewing positions "where Mattie is looking out
into space, this baby is out in space and looking back at you, confronting
"Oklahoma" Tsinhnahjinnie transports two Oklahoma women from their
time and context to be surrounded by shifting and skewed slices
of time. "The planes of time we occupy while we are here and when
we are gone. The planes of time our memory occupies as we put them
into thought." Tsinhnahjinnie includes one slice of time, a landscape
from her home in Rough Rock, Arizona as a mode of her own interaction
with the portrait. This spring, Tsinhnahjinnie and her mother traveled
to Oklahoma to visit with relatives, some of whom she had never
met. The portrait, "Grandchildren" visually reminds the artist of
the black Seminole relatives she has only just met and "how that
history is often hidden, so in Grandchildren I raise the issue of
interracial relations that are put into selective memory, conveniently
Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie is documenting or reclaiming histories and
images, commenting on national and global politics, or making us
laugh, her voice is strong and clear. Communicating through her
images, she explores a variety of mediums, always cognizant of new
directions and technologies. It was a natural and vital step when
Tsinhnahjinnie leaped from photographic hand-collage to the ever-expansive
possibilities of the digital world. She makes Walter Benjamin's
fears of mass dissemination realized, with the ability to bring
the Indigenous world together across continents, maintaining full
sovereignty of an enduring and persevering Native philosophy.
was a beautiful day when the scales fell from my eyes and I first
encountered photographic sovereignty. A beautiful day when I decided
that I would take responsibility to reinterpret images of Native
peoples. My mind was ready, primed with stories of resistance and
resilience, stories of survival. My views of these images are aboriginally
based, an indigenous perspective, not a scientific Godly order,
but philosophically Native." -- Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie 15
H. J. (1993). "Compensating Imbalances." Exposure
and Roses Cultural Project (1997). Women of Hope, Native American/Hawaiian:
Study Guide. New York, 1199 National Health and Human Service
Employees Union.. Featured women were: Lori Arviso Alvord, Charlotte
A. Black Elk, Carrie and Mary Dann, Joy Harjo, Pualani Kanahele,
Winona LaDuke, Wilma Mankiller, Muriel Miguel, Janine Pease-Pretty
On Top, Joanne Shenandoah, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and Rosita
T. (2002). Indigenous Visionaries: Native Women Artists in California.
Art/Women/California 1950-2000: Parallels and Intersections.
D. Fuller and D. Salvioni. Berkeley, San Jose Museum of Art,
University of California Press: 192.
communication. Unless referenced otherwise, all quotations by
Tsinhnahjinnie are excerpted from interviews conducted directly
with the artist.
T. (1994). "Cultural Constructions: Rethinking Past and
the New Realities." Camerawork: A Journal of Photographic
Arts 21(1): 20.
info to follow..
Galerija Maribor (2000). American Dreams: 6th international
triennal The Ecology and the Art. U. G. Maribor. Slovenia.
Art/Facts (2002). George Eastman House, Rochester NY.
T. (1993). "Message Carriers: Native Photographic Messages."
VIEWS: The Journal of Photography in New England 13-4/14-1:7
P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of
Taste. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
W. (1955). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
15.Illuminations. H. Arendt. New York, Schocken Books: 217-251.
H. J. (1998). When is a Photograph Worth a Thousand Words? Native
16.Nations: Journeys in American Photography. J. Alison. London,
Barbican Art Gallery and Booth-Clibborn Editions.: 42