Jeff Thomas at Stephen Bulger Gallery

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday November 29, 2012

The romanticized Indian warrior in full regalia, one of the most common and anachronistic stereotypes, is best exemplified by the photographic work of Edward S. Curtis. As portrait-sitters and performers at Wild West shows and World Expositions, those “real Indians” were no longer human beings but icons, symbols of a vanished race of savages. Because assimilation policies have segregated Indians from white society so successfully, and because Indians so often are depicted as mannequins in natural history museums, to this day many non-Native children believe that Indians have disappeared altogether.

These imbalances are being shifted by Native American photographers redefining their identity from within their culture. I have attempted to show a tradition-based reality by confronting one of the most stereotyped images of Indians: the male powwow dancer. The pageantry in powwow easily overshadows the origins of the regalia and the ceremony…. By photographing these dancers in black and white, at close range, I hope to reveal what is masked by the brilliant color and acrobatic dance movements of powwow.—Jeffrey M. Thomas, in Strong Hearts: Native American Visions and Voices (Aperture 1995)

Peggy Roalf: Throughout your career you have embraced the images of Edward S. Curtis as a springboard to your work and process. During the period when a “politically incorrect” move could torpedo anyone in the arts, did it ever seem that you were swimming against the tide?

Jeff Thomas: That is a very important question and one that I often considered but have never spoken about. I had heard rumors that my work with Curtis was seen in a negative light by other photographers. Some people thought I should not give him any more credit than he was already receiving from the general public. I never considered changing my approach for one simple reason: I felt he had accomplished something very few photographers of his generation had done, which was to engage with the sitters.

When I saw his portraits of indigenous elders for the first time I felt that they were saying something to me. It was a revelation, especially after seeing how so many other photographers had posed Indians like store mannequins. What I saw in Curtis’s work were the same faces of my elders, who had a powerful impact on my life and whose principled way of life (traditional Iroquois values) foregrounded my art practice.


Left: Amos Keye, Iroquois Confederacy, 1983. Right: Richard Poafpybitty Applying Facial Paint, Comanche/Omaha Nation, 1983. Courtesy Jeff Thomas (l) and Princeton University Art Museum Photography Collection (r).

But what was problematic about working with Curtis was the way his work appeared to isolate indigenous people in the past. For that reason I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being compared to Curtis. My greatest fear was that I would be judged sub-par to Curtis and my point of view would be discredited. I knew that there was a lot more substance to Curtis’s work than what was seen in pop culture venues. And that was the substance for staying with his work and not discarding it because it appeared, on the surface, so drenched in stereotyping.

PR: Photography has been a constant in the depiction of Native people since Curtis—both in still photography and in cinema. Was this a consideration when you took up photography?

JT: Yes. When I began to study photography, I looked for other indigenous photographers who I could base my work upon and found none. I also searched archives and books for something different from the standard Indian type that seemed to dominate photography, but I found none that looked like me or the people around me. The absences I encountered were shocking and more shocking was the fact that no one (indigenous or non-indigenous) had mounted a response.

Photography and cinema was like facing terra incognito. I saw Indians but I also didn’t see Indians. Which raised the question: Why? Photography then became my personal battlefield and I wanted to make sure someone stood up against these negative depictions. I used to feel that my objective was somewhat like landing on the moon’s surface, exhilarating in its uncultured form but frightening as well; where do you begin?

PR: In one of the pieces in your upcoming solo show at Stephen Bulger Gallery, you include this quote from Curtis: “The transformation period is naturally discouraging and the promise long held out to them of better things through civilization has proven worse than empty husks.” It seems that he was early in making this assessment about the government policy of “Indian Reorganization,” starting in 1930. Can you comment on the accuracy of his texts in general and this one in particular?

JT: Curtis was also a historian and ethnographer and to a degree, a realist. When he made his comments the fact was, indigenous tribal groups were, in fact, vanishing. Death rates on reserves and reservations were exceeding birth rates. The fact was, Canadian and American governments were determined to exterminate Indians and thus open up their lands for development. This would alleviate the financial burden of taking care of them. And I use the word exterminate with regard to forced assimilation. One of the avenues was the use of institutional boarding schools, known in Canada as residential schools.   

The transformation period was discouraging because on the other side, the promise of a better life was in fact poverty, systemic racism, greed, and death by assimilation. The interesting point I found about his comments was the fine line he had to navigate between his financial backers and his personal feelings about how his race had treated indigenous people. So he coded his personal comments in a way that I found provocative, but I would never have known about them if I hadn't studies all twenty volumes of The North American Indian.

And rather than using his photographic skills as say, a social documentary photographer, he focused on preserving for future indigenous generations the faces of the people who were feeling the ravages of assimilation, and who were seeing their culture being eaten away by government policies. I feel that this was the message coming from the portraits, saying: Do not forget where you come from. 

So for my series of works that will be shown at the Stephen Bulger Gallery [starting December 1], I began adding quotes from Curtis that, in a subtle way, give the illusion of a conversation taking place. Although Curtis was a powerful personality in his own right, I think he was humbled by the elders he met over the course of his career; this is evident in in his text and in his portraits, on close reading.


 Jeff Thomas, Was Batsi-hawutush (Medicine Crow), 2006.

PR: Has photography been a greater draw for you than other art forms, say, the paintings of George Catlin and Peter Rindisbacher? Or Plains Indian ledger drawings?

JT: It has, primarily because when I entered the field in the late 1970s there were no indigenous practitioners, past or present. At least in the contemporary sense, I didn’t know of any others. So I saw a need in photography and decided to focus my attention there. But I was not a trained photographer, or an academic. I am self- taught and I had to build a historical knowledge base about how indigenous people have imaged themselves (ledger drawings for instance) and how they have been depicted by white artists, including anthropologists.

I came to know the work of image-makers like William Henry Jackson, Edward Curtis, Peter Rindisbacher, Karl Bodmer and George Catlin through my research. I had to know what I faced and how to most effectively challenge the stereotype they produced or how their work was used to perpetuate stereotypes. The interesting outcome of my research was the way in which I had conversations with each image-maker, especially those who left a written record. My current series of work focuses on Edward Curtis but the complete series of 40 works includes many other image-makers.       

PR: A number of your recent series continue to explore these themes, documenting evidence of “Indian-ness,” from public monuments to trade signs to children’s toy figures. Does stereotyping what it is to be Native American continue as widely as before?

JT: Yes, and that is why I continue to work in this area. The sad part is that indigenous people have also embraced the stereotype. You can see evidence of this in craft/tourist stores run by indigenous people. I don’t feel the critical discourse on stereotyping has reached our young people.

PR: Has the myth of “The Vanishing Race” been redressed?

JT: Although a critical response is taking place in the indigenous visual arts, I don’t feel that gallery/museum culture is reaching enough youth. We still do not have an education system that addresses indigenous history, let alone contemporary issues like urbanization, suicide, substance abuse, and lose of identity.

Will we change the minds of the general public? I don’t think that will ever happen in great numbers, although I hope it does. We have had an impact in the art-viewing population, but that is a very small part of the general public.

PR: In one of your projects you refer to yourself as an “Urban Iroquois,” shooting a series of street photographs, sometimes from moving vehicles in downtown areas. What were your influences for this series; did you see many others of your clan in the city?

JT: My street-based views emerged from this question: What would indigenous people photograph if given control of the camera? I thought about this while looking at the work of Edward Curtis, for example. They would, of course, photograph each other at family events, etc., just like people of any other culture do.

The earliest influence on my aesthetic was my grandmother. I remember, as a young boy, being shown the family photographs she kept in a shoebox. They included family gatherings in the city and on the reserve and she could recount the events and people in each photograph. So when I began researching historical photography I expected to find the same type of images, I was shocked when I couldn’t find any, especially in urban settings.

I would have loved to know what other indigenous people thought about the urban environment and I couldn’t make up what was not there, but I could provide my own impression of the city. Two influential photographers on my early work were Eugene Atget and Walker Evans, and I thought, “What if they had been indigenous people?” More recently I began shooting urban scenes from my car and using the car door frame as a farming device.  

But the point behind my urban work was to define the urban Iroquois experience. In my early days shooting, and considering my problematic association with Curtis, self-identifying as an urban Indian carried its own stigma, meaning that one’s own Indian-ness was called into question. Could a “real” Indian live in a city?        

PR: In all the 20 volumes of Curtis’s The North American Indian, he never visited one of the most vital native populations today – the Iroquois Nation of the Northeast. Do you know if he had a reason for concentrating largely on the Plains Indians, and the Northwest? Do you think that this has increased the “invisibility” of Native people in the Northeast?

JT: I suspect that Curtis’s imperative was to record tribal groups that he felt had retained more aspects of their tribal heritage than tribal groups in the East. I’m sure he felt that tribal groups in the East, like my Iroquois ancestors, who had a much longer historical relationship with white society, had lost most of their distinctive tribal identity by the turn of the twentieth century.

But it goes farther back than Curtis. I feel that the artist George Catlin made the distinction in the late 1820’s, when he decided to go West in search of "authentic” tribal groups and, in his own words, become their historian. Of course people in the West were still living their ancient tribal way of life at the time. Catlin, who was born in Pennsylvania, felt it would not be long before his people showed up and did the same thing in the West that they had already done to the Iroquois. Unfortunately Catlin was right, but he also set a standard for authenticity that I feel influenced Curtis to a degree, but more importantly, continues to influence people's perceptions of Indians today.  

What is interesting to note about Curtis, even though his sitters had been living on reserves and reservations for decades, many of the old-timers he photographed and interviewed had lived the tribal way of life before being forced off their ancestral lands. The general public knows Indians by this myopic standard, and many people perceive real Indians as those who wear feather headdresses and live in tipis. Ask a young person to describe an Indian and I’m pretty sure he or she will describe a stereotypical western Indian figure.                             

PR: You mentioned in a recent email that you were working on a new project based on the anniversary of a 16th-century treaty between the Dutch and the Iroquois. Could you talk about your approach to this material and what your plans are?

JT: My conversation series with the past also includes Iroquois representation in the form of wampum belts. I have made two large panels Mapping Iroquois: Cold City Frieze and Home/land & Security, based upon the Hiawatha Wampum belt which essentially represents the formation of the original five Iroquois tribes by a man called the Peacemaker. 

I am now planning a new panel based upon the Two Row Wampum Belt which commemorates the 16th century treaty between the Iroquois and the Dutch and symbolizes how each will respect the other’s way of life. My plan is to visit Amsterdam in 2013 and pose my Indian figurine Red Robe in various locations and the same in New York City. My interest in New York is the city seal that shows an Indian and a white man standing side by side. This new work is intended to coincide with Ottawa’s 2013 celebration of Samuel de Champlain’s’ arrival in the area. I’m not sure what the end result will be yet, but 2013 also commemorates, on a personal level, my twenty year anniversary of the Scouting for Indians series.          

Jeff Thomas’s second solo exhibition with Stephen Bulger Gallery, The Conversation: Resistance Is NOT Futile, opens Saturday in Toronto, with a reception for the artist from 2 to 5 pm. Stephen Bulger Gallery, 1026 Queen Street NW, Toronto, ON. Also see: Jeff Thomas: A Study of Indian-ness