This is a photograph of a Native person wearing a traditional shawl in a field of wheat.
Matika Wilbur, Swinomish and Tulalip, born 1984, Dr. Henrietta Mann (Cheyenne), 2019. Courtesy of the artist

“In Our Hands” turns the camera around, puts Native photographers in control

By Tim Gihring //

In the fall of 2020, a group of fourteen mostly Native artists and writers met online to discuss a potential exhibition of Native photography, and they agreed on some basic guidelines. Honor the work of elder artists, while including contemporary photographers. Feature the voices of Native artists and scholars in the catalogue. Don’t include any work by non-Native photographers—especially Edward Curtis.

Curtis is the Wisconsin-born, Minnesota-raised photographer who spent several decades around the turn of the 20th century attempting to catalogue what he called “the vanishing race,” compiling thousands of photographs into books that helped shape a perception of Native Americans as a people stuck in the past, disappearing into history. Even now, a Google search for “photographs of Native Americans” largely surfaces the sepia-toned work of Curtis or his imitators.

“In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now,” opening October 22 at Mia, is the result of that Zoom call and many further discussions with Native scholars and artists. Flipping the script of the Curtis narrative, the exhibition gathers more than 150 images from the past and present, from B.A. Haldane—a contemporary of Curtis from the Tsimshian Nation in Alaska—to the most exciting Native photographers working today. It is a show created, as its curators describe it, “with, by, and for Native people.”

Russel Albert Daniels, a Diné (Navajo) and Ho-Chunk photographer featured in the exhibition, says the process of documenting Native life is no less important than the images themselves. “It’s healing for the communities, individuals, and Indigenous people who are seeing themselves represented in our stories. … And in the end, to have it done properly, it’s healing for the audience who’s receiving this. Because they’re finally being told the true stories and seeing that our cultures are full of nuance, individualism, beauty, and wisdom.”

Ungelbah Davila, a Diné (Navajo) photographer also featured in the exhibition, says these stories are being shared at a moment when Native communities are seeking solidarity, “finding ways to connect a unified front of Indigenous people with our relatives to the south, to the north, across the country, across the continents, and across the world.” It’s an exciting time to be involved in both the art world and the Indigenous world, she says. “The sky’s the limit now.”

Here, a sampling of images from the exhibition. To see more, get tickets to the exhibition, buy the catalogue through the Store at Mia, and join the curators, advisors, and artists in discussing the themes of the show, the day before it opens, on October 21.

B.A. (Benjamin Alfred) Haldane, Tsimshian, 1874-1941, Benjamin A. Haldane self-portrait in studio in Metlakatla, c. 1919- 1920. Image courtesy of Ketchikan Museums: Photograph by Benjamin A. Haldane, KM


Horace Poolaw, Kiowa, 1906-1984, Horace Poolaw aerial photographer, and Gus Palmer (Kiowa), side gunner inside a B-17 Flying Fortress, Tampa, Fla., c. 1944. Courtesy of the Poolaw Family and the Nash Library, University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma


Brian Adams, Iñupiaq, born 1985, Marie Rexford of Kaktovik, Alaska preparing maktak for the village’s Thanksgiving Day feast, 2015, from the I am Inuit series, medium format film – Type C print. Courtesy the Artist © Brian Adams


Nadya Kwandibens, Animakee Wa Zhing #37 First Nation Anishinaabe, Tee Lyn Duke (née Copenace) Toronto, ON, March 2010, from the Concrete Indians series. Courtesy of Red Works Photography © 2010 Red Works Photography