We Walk in Beauty

Images of Their Own

In the Smithsonian Institution's letter of appreciation found at the close of this book, the photographer Gary Auerbach is rightly praised for his artistry and mastery of his craft. Stunning and lush, rich in texture and vibrancy, and deftly composed, the alluring photographs presented here and in the limited edition of photogravures, reveal a compelling talent. But to me, the ultimate beauty of these images lies with Auerbach's subjects as well as his own gifted vision. The indigenous voice—-an essential element notably absent in most images of Native Americans—-is celebrated in this path-breaking, harmonic union of images and words.

As a librarian specializing in photographs of Native life and people, I have viewed thousands of images over the past twelve years. While studying the face of a handsome and beguiling Lakota Wild West show performer pictured in an early 20th-century studio portrait or while getting lost in the sparkling eyes of a Northern Cheyenne child as she plays with her toy tipi in a faded image taken in Montana, I've often wondered: What are you up to? What are you thinking? Has your family seen this delightful picture? What sort of life do you have? What are your thoughts of yesterday, today, tomorrow?

Sadly, in the history of the photography of Native people, the Indian voice has been most striking for its silence. Indigenous people generally have been excluded except as subjects.

Created primarily for commercial markets and anthropological studies, their portraits often revealed more about the photographer's attitudes than they did about Native life and culture. Offensive, degrading, or simply inaccurate captions contributed further to the objectification of indigenous people and kept their real identities a mystery.

In her book about photography and the American West, Martha Sandweiss suggests that 19th-century photographs of Native Americans were "used to endorse a political agenda that involved a systematic attack on native cultures." [1] Susan Sontag, the late critic of contemporary society, is even more scathing in her assessment, claiming that the photography of Native Americans represented the "most brutal" and "predatory side" of photography. [2] And, describing the far-reaching impact of these attitudes, Rick Hill, a Tuscarora photographer and scholar who has written extensively about stereotyping in historic images, states it simply: "The camera photographed Indians but the viewer saw losers." [3]

Breaking with the past, Auerbach is one of the first photographers to invite his subjects to participate as full partners in the collaborative process of making a photograph. This innovative book is the poignant and successful result of that collaboration.

Working with Ofelia Zepeda (Tohono O'Odham), a distinguished professor of linguistics and recipient of the MacArthur Foundation award (the "genius grant"), Auerbach crafted a series of interview questions for the photographic participants. I think you will agree with me that their responses, which are completely unedited, speak as loudly as the photographs.

Not surprisingly, many of their comments reflect cultural tradition, emphasizing the importance of family and how values are passed down from one generation to the next. For example, Ruth Benally's conception of her Dine way of life ("We Walk in Beauty") reiterates that given to the Navajo by their Holy People when they emerged into this world. She says, "I was born with it."

These individuals are also "proud to represent" their Native Nations, excited about having their portraits exhibited, and eager to contribute their diverse indigenous perspectives. They obviously enjoyed the experience. Why else would they offer such candid and personal glimpses into their lives?

The rich words and images published here are documents of family history, valuable to Native Nations and non-Indian audiences alike. They evoke treasured memories, elicit personal and cultural stories, and stimulate ideas. I applaud this heartfelt effort by both the photographer and the contributer-sitters-—who were graciously, and finally, given the opportunity to represent themselves.

Jennifer Brathovde
(Sisseton-Wahpeton, Spirit Lake Sioux Nation)
Prints & Photographs Division
Library of Congress

[1] Martha A. Sandweiss, Print the Legend:
Photography and the American West (New Haven and London:
Yale University Press, 2002), p. 215.

[2] Susan Sontag, On Photography
(New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1977), p. 64.

[3] Rick Hill, "In Our Own Image:
Stereotyped Images of Indians Lead to New Native Art Form,"
in Exposure (Volume 29:1, Fall 1993), p. 7.