One could say that it’s taken the last thirty years to gain a type of access to a sovereign nation that I’ve been privileged and honored to obtain. I say it’s taken that long for me to prove myself to a people that don’t take lightly to disrespect, and recall vivid memories of a time that people with my colored skin acted in unfathomable ways - and access is limited.
Taking into consideration the land on which you stand while you’re taking photographs throughout the United States is something that shouldn’t be neglected. Whether you realize it or not, the ground you may be posing your subjects on could have an entirely different meaning to those who have lived and died there. Even today, having a camera pointed in the wrong direction in a culturally significant area could be a sign of disrespect, and many Native American Tribes have specific beliefs about capturing images of people and places that must be recognized first.
There are over 560 federally recognized Native American Tribes within the United States, and many others that are not recognized by the United States Government. Taking the time to research the ground you plan on scouting for your next photo shoot may be important. In most cases, permission to photograph anything on a Native American Reservation commercially must first be approved by some type of Tribal Council prior to any images being taken.
It has been my experience that most Native American Tribes practice elaborate traditions, all of which are unique to their tribe and location, however I’m yet to come across a tribal member willing to be photographed without an explanation of how I’m planning to use the image. Of course, you could just snap away and get the shot, but if you plan on residing smack-dab in the middle of said Reservation, or working there again in the future, it’s to your benefit (and a sign of respect) to spend a few minutes getting to know the people you’re immortalizing. Doing so, you may find that you're encountered with beautiful stories that enlighten your perspective and help you to understand the types of images they enjoy most.
Where I'm from, traditional Native American games like Shinny are popular amongst youth at cultural events that take place throughout the year. I enjoy photographing these events, and over the years have developed friendships with many of the tribal youth that are incredibly rewarding in return. On top of the personal satisfaction that comes from capturing these moments is the role you'll play in preserving the traditions for future generations. Much like the language of many tribes, many games and art forms are unfortunately disappearing. Photographing these important moments in a tasteful manner helps preserve them so that they can be used to learn from and solidify ways of life that aren't so commonly captured.
History hasn't been kind to Native Americans in regards to the way that it's been documented. Fast forward to today, and there are significant events taking place throughout Indian country everyday, such as the fiasco at the Dakota Oil Pipeline, that needs to be documented by professionals. Whether it's simply taking the time to research where you're working, or making a decision to be a part of history by documenting the many opportunities that are presented throughout the US each year, photographing anything on a sovereign nation should be done with respect.
Just Don't Be THAT Guy
I know many of us grew up playing "Cowboys and Indians." Fact is, we're adults now and should understand the condescending undertone associated with the theme. I'm specifically talking to the guy planning the "Indian" shoot with the fake headdress. Just don't do it. It's disrespectful unless you're photographing a legitimate headdress with permission from the maker and the one it was made for, due to reasons far more in depth than this article. It's all too common throughout Native American reservations for non-tribal members to claim some sort of Native American heritage (I anticipate some backlash here) but unless you're an enrolled member of a federally recognized Native American tribe, don't seek any sort of acknowledgement from those who are. Just trust me on this.
I'm not going to suggest that one seek the nearest reservation to begin photographing, however I will say that if you currently already reside on or near one (there's a good chance you may) do what you can to show respect.