Beyond Stereotypes: Native American photographer showcases modern depictions of Indians

For more than three decades, photographer Jeff Thomas has worked tirelessly to dispel the myth of the vanishing Indian.

Jeff Thomas' photo of the Samuel de Champlain monument in Ottawa, titled "Ground Zero" helped inspire an activist movement that resulted in the removal of the Indian Scout statue in the lower left of the photo. The statue depicted the Native American scout in a subordinate role because of the statue's kneeling pose and lower placement, SIUE anthropology professor Cory Willmott said. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Thomas)

As an Iroquois photographic artist, Thomas has created visual portraits that serve as reminder that Native Americans and their historic legacies still endure today. They may be less visible now because many American Indians, like Thomas have blended into urban areas including Buffalo, N.Y, Thomas’ hometown. Native Americans deal with various social problems such as alcoholism and depression. SIUE anthropology professor Cory Willmott said that Native Americans are sometimes viewed as the vanishing race and often students can lose their connection with their presence here today. Thomas will host a lecture in Peck Hall, Room 2304 at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

“It’s really about Indian identity,” Willmott said. “Part of what he is trying to say here is this is what people think Native Americans look like. This is what they really look like. So it’s confusing for Indians growing up in the city because they have these false images that people expect them to look like.”

Thomas, who calls himself an “Urban Iroquois,” attempts to expand beyond typical depictions of Native Americans through his photography. Instead, the Buffalo native wants to showcase Indians in contemporary settings, such as large cities. Thomas’ presentation, titled “Thinking Beyond Colonialism” will highlight his work, which has spanned from haunting portraits of Crow dancers at pow wows to chronological images of his son, Bear, that illustrate the life struggles of a young Native American boy.

“He’s really forward-looking,” Willmott said. “A lot of contemporary Native American artists are sort of spinning their wheels on issues surrounding colonialism. He started off with that, but now he’s pushing forward and his theme now is called thinking beyond colonialism. So to think beyond colonialism, he wants to really explore what was here before the Europeans got here and he got into the prehistory side.”

His latest project, documenting the life of the Cahokian people in the St. Louis area, will feature images of Mississippian artifacts juxtaposed with the East St. Louis industrial waterfront. Willmott said this will display the contrast between post industrialism and the rich cultural past of the Cahokians. Thomas arrived this week to tour the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and other mounds in the region with Mounds Project manager Suzanne Kutterer Sibert, as well as view Mississippian artifacts at the St. Louis Art Museum with curator Amy Clark.

“One thing that fascinates me and what I want to build upon is the significance of Mississippian art, today,” Thomas said. “I want to build a discussion about indigenous urbanization and resistance to our complete assimilation. I feel that resistance is not a recent phenomena, but in fact the idea of resistance to the European invasion goes back to pre-contact times. I am developing some thoughts on this area and why I think (as an artist) Mississippian art work is so important.”

This week he will be meeting with SIUE photography students and Native American Studies students to discuss his work.

“It’s very important for our Native American Studies program to give students the opportunity to have first-hand encounters with contemporary Native Americans,” Willmott said. “And this becomes all the more urgent because with Cahokia a half hour away it reinforces the stereotype of the disappearing Indian. In other words those Mississippians are no longer here. That culture is no longer a living culture. Students may easily get this misimpression that Native Americans are a thing of the past.”

Before his presentation, there will be a screening of the documentary “Shooting Indians: A Journey with Jeff Thomas.” Created by independent filmmaker Ali Kazimi in 1997, the film showcases Thomas’ various photographic projects. The film is available to view at Lovejoy Library.

Thomas bears physical pain that serves as a reminder of the prejudice Native Americans face. As a young man, Thomas suffered a devastating hip injury. Thomas said he did not receive proper medical care, possibly due to prejudice. Willmott said Thomas walks with a slight limp and must use a cane to help him get around.

“He says his art is part of the healing practice because when he’s doing his art, he becomes so absorbed in the project that he can stop thinking about the pain,” Willmott said. “He says that the accident and the pain it’s caused him has really motivated him to do something to help people become more aware of the contemporary Native Americans.”

Thomas will also discuss the American Indian father-son relationship and his experience raising his son. Bear Witness is a successful recording artist who is part of “A Tribe Called Red,” a Canadian techno pop group comprised of three DJs of Native American descent. The group blends traditional Pow Wow and indigenous music with electronic dance beats.

“He wants to talk about what’s the impact of growing up in a city for his son and what the impact of his art practice has been for his son,” Willmott said. “because for young Native Americans, especially young Native American males, there’s more unemployment and social issues of violence and drug use. They have all the bad things going on. So Jeff is also trying to show as a role model to younger people how young Native Americans can succeed.”

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