By Jaida Grey Eagle //
The special exhibition “In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now” is on view at Mia through January 14, 2024. The following essay has been excerpted from the exhibition catalogue, available from The Store at Mia.
Growing up, I never knew there were so many Indigenous photographers out there, past and present. I barely ever heard my teachers talk about Indigenous people in general; in fact, they would often brush over the brutal past of colonization. I always remember the eye contact they would make with me when they would declare a white man “discovered” America but that there were Indigenous people here and nod towards me, this shy little kid whose presence made them acknowledge an entire people. Their definition of history and time never really made sense to me as I was told differently at home. Being a Native person, you learn from a young age of the two worlds you have to live in and navigate, and both of those worlds are declaring they are the truth of what happened to your people.
Luckily, I found photography at a young age. I was and am forever fascinated by the ability to stop time. When the world feels like too much or even too little, I can take a small piece of it and hold on. I often think of what drives me as an Indigenous woman and so much of what that is, is survival. I only speak English because my family adapted to it in boarding schools, in order to survive. I live in a city far from my reservation because of opportunities to expand who I am in all ways. I cultivate artistic practices that help bring our epistemologies into the current moment, because I believe in them wholeheartedly. I take photographs for the future so that they will know we survived and we’re still here creating, living, loving, and breathing. I was so often talked out of pursuing photography. I have probably been told “no” far more than I have been told “yes” in this world; however, you just need to keep going. To have an artistic practice that feels so powerful can often be scary but it’s also empowering. I believe I pursued photography because it has that ability. It can both terrify me but also empower me.
When I joined the team at Mia to co-curate this project, I had just finished my degree at the Institute of American Indian Arts. I had been immersed in the world of Indigenous art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and wherever I could find similar surroundings is where I wanted to be. While I was in Santa Fe, I took a course that introduced me to so many Indigenous photographers of the not-so-distant past, and I was also accepted into the collective “Indigenous Photograph.” Through both of these outlets, I have been introduced to many of the works featured in this publication and exhibition.
I started at Mia through the Mdewakanton Fellowship but have stayed on throughout the years as a co-curator. Coming off the success of “Hearts of Our People,” our project began to come to fruition. It was important to bring the cumulative timetable of Indigenous photographers into this exhibition, as I truly believe that it is important for the legacy of all photographers to know this history, and it is the history of the land you are more than likely standing upon. This history, and the stories told by the photographers, are an incredible testament to the original people of this land. Learning about all our pasts is important to our collective growth as a people.
I often think back to what it must have been like for Indigenous photographers to be doing this work 100 years ago and if they were thinking of the impact they would have on future Native photographers. I think of them often and their ability to send their worldviews into the future, the way they document their communities and how they see the world is still with us, and it deeply resonates and will continue to do so. Currently a new era of Indigenous photographers is being cultivated. I sleep so easily knowing this work is in good hands. It is all thanks to those that came before us and it’s for those that will come after us. I hope that because of our collective journeys the next Indigenous youth that says they want to be a photographer is believed wholeheartedly by their family, community, and us. It is a beautiful life, and we will be waiting for you with open arms and hearts.
Jaida Grey Eagle is a curator, writer, and photographer based in Minneapolis. Her photography has recently appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, ProPublica, The Urban Institute, and Netflix. Learn more about her work at jaidagreyeagle.com.