Our memory of the West is from an imagination forever tied to the stylized photographs of Edward Curtis. Romanticized photographic portraits of Native Americans stand as heroic figures and subjects of colonial conquest twice over. These portraits from the late 19th century through the early 20th century were set up with neutralized backgrounds suggesting a complicit staging or a grand manner painting. Far from being self authored, these photo sessions are also a momento mori to the final days. They also may be re-appropriated by native people for contemporary reasons today. In the film, "Smoke Signals", based on the work by native author, Sherman Alexie,- Victor, a young Coeur d'Alene Native American instructs Thomas on the proper way an Indian should posture himself. In a touch of irony, he references the look of native cliches suggesting a Curtis photo or "spaghetti western" film. Victor seems to unknowingly advocate a view constructed by the very people he is trying to inform. The sad truth of the matter is that these references and photos actually do document a truth,- that as a reminder of the tragedy of human subjugation and of the final days for the last generation that moved freely on the Plains. It is a Gothic tale holding a place simultaneously to that of the noble 'Lost Cause' and the Civil War. These images and inspiring myths have been appropriated throughout our modern culture. From professional sports teams to fashion to grocery products, the sentiments of the 'wild west' lives on in the naming of our suburban streets and modern armaments. The 'Apache Helicopter' inspires images of a dangerous foe willing to fight to the end while a 'Tomahawk' missile conjures up a notion too devastating to consider. Joseph Campbell reminds us that a culture cannot exist without a myth of itself and here in lies my fascination with these pictures,- the surviving images and the re-re-appropriation of them. John Fire Lame Deer, a Lakota elder comments on the 'Indian' way of writing his name by utilizing a picture and drawing some indication of action upon it to confer meaning. (Thus, the descriptive 'noun' Lame Deer is rendered as his name.) The portrait of Rain-In-the-Face therefore begins with a series of storm clouds surrounding his face. These were literally added (thrown on in paint) to make reference to a name earned in a brutal encounter earlier in his life in which the blood of an enemy was left streaming down his face,- streaked like that from a rain storm. Likewise as his name might suggest, Goes-To-War literally has left the picture plane and he steps out into an unordinary space. American Horse is also painted with literal images in addition to his name written in Romanized Lakota saying, Wasechum Tashunka. These thought experiment pictures were meant to be a re-examination of my fascination with the photography, history, and mythology of a 50 year time period in U.S. history between 1860 and 1910. If the result is that they end up honoring these subjects, then the intended outcome will be taken as a positive sign.
- Don Pollack