Portraits In Art: Celebrating Native Women and Youth

Fun Info, Inspiration

A True Honor

In June, I had the honor of photographing portraits for Apsáalooke artist Wendy Red Star. This was to become part of her commissioned artwork for the Seattle Art Museum’s American Art Gallery. It is titled, Áakiiwilaxpaake (People Of The Earth).

This is the first time I’ve worked for an artist to add to the elements they are creating with, and I found myself both nervous and excited to contribute and see the finished work. She had a vision for this (her work often includes photography), and she invited the Native American community in the Seattle area to come to sit for portraits. Specifically, she asked for women and youths to participate.

We had many people sign up to participate for our photo day hosted at the Seattle Art Museum. Several came down with illnesses or suddenly had conflicts in their schedule so we didn’t end up photographing everyone who wanted to participate, but were grateful to have plenty for Wendy to choose to work with. We saw families and individuals join us, the largest family included 4 generations!

To see women and youths, photographed in present day portraits where many different tribes are represented is beautiful. Those who participated included: Aaniiih (White Clay), Dena’ina, Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Chahta (Choctaw), Seminole, Tlingit, Cherokee, The Sac and Fox Nation, 14 Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, Numunuu (Comanche), Hopi, Diné (Navajo), Mvskoke, Chickasaw, spuyaləpabš (Puyallup), Apsáalooke, Eastern Shawnee of Oklahoma, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, Seneca Nation.

Áakiiwilaxpaake (People Of The Earth)

When I first saw the artwork up on the wall, greeting people in the American Art Gallery, my eyes welled up with tears. It was more beautiful than I imagined it would be! To see portraits I had the privilege to photograph so large in it was overwhelming in the best possible way. Words aren’t quite adequate for me to convey just how meaningful and how grateful I am to have been a part of Wendy’s work.

Viewing the response

While attending the opening celebration, I stood to the side and was able to witness several of our participants see themselves in the art work. The moments that stood out the most were seeing the eldest elder giggle and smile at the sight. Then the youngest girl, perhaps about 2-years-old smiled really big at her mom looking back at her portrait and back at her mom.

This brought up a lot of meaning for me as a Native American woman, photographer, and mother. I’ve been reflecting on how important this work is. It’s validating and empowering. You see, when I was a girl, I remember my mother being asked what I was - meaning, what was my race. I’m a blend of Norwegian, Yugoslavian, English, French, Native American, and a variety of many more European backgrounds. I’m not a clearly defined race by my looks.

About every year I can remember since I was about 12-years-old, I’ve been asked, “What are you?” Many mistook my dark eyes, long, dark, straight hair and my youthful slender frame to be part Asian. Now that I’m older and curvier, with shorter hair, I get asked this far less. So, you see it’s especially meaningful to me that Áakiiwilaxpaake (People of the Earth) highlights women and youths from many different tribal backgrounds that do not all fit the “Native American” look often shown in movies or Art Museums of the past.

Our children viewing, "The Dying Tecumseh" on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art.

Native Americans in American Art Galleries

As a mother, I have immense gratitude that my children will see Native Americans represented in current portraits. As they have grown, I’ve taught them about our Native heritage as members of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. We’ve visited our tribal Pow-wow a couple of times so far. We have also seen the sculpture of one of our most famous ancestors, Tecumseh at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. It’s a marble carved depiction of him laying on the battlefield dying, titled, The Dying Tecumseh. We’ve talked about how this depiction of him is by a German Sculpture artist who rendered his likeness after many descriptions of the American Generals and leaders who fought against him or the Indian Agents who heard his speeches. The likeness is not accurate in terms of his dress or his actual dimension (often exaggerated to say he was as tall as the horses, 7ft.+). It’s a terrific example of perception from various perspectives literally shaped into art.

Another thing that stood out to me while enjoying the newly recreated American Art Gallery and this work in it is seeing the young- the youths included. Of all those other art  galleries I’ve visited, I don’t remember seeing much youth except for Renaissance paintings or religious themed scenes with either cherubs, angels or suckling babes. Wendy Red Star’s artwork is relevant, vibrant and enriching.

Photography is often not appreciated as a fine art in the art world that I’ve experienced. I started out as a child fascinated by photography. With a Grandfather and Mother who could paint anything, I often saw it as a medium that wasn’t up to their talents. But, I distinctly remember my photojournalism Professor, Rich Riski saying, “Photography is as much of an art as it is a science.” He really opened the world of photography to me. While I didn’t pursue photojournalism, I count that background as my foundation. I loved seeing the stories waiting to be documented, and still often use this lens in my everyday experiences. I’ve been working to always cultivate my skills to do better every day, week and year. And this project was no exception. I thank my family for doing a test photo session with me. 

Lighting Test with my children, photo by Casey Margell

Process + Gratitude

We worked in a studio I rented in Pioneer Square that had a similar lighting setting I knew we’d have at the Seattle Art Museum: Window light on the right, and high ceilings. I worked with our kids and posed with them in a few while my husband stepped up to take the portraits. This enabled me to communicate and plan with Wendy Red Star. She was able to give me feedback to prepare for the SAM photo day to produce the style of portraits she needed in a timely manner. Special thanks to my husband, Casey, and our kids, Cooper and Iris for helping me practice and prepare!

I’m incredibly grateful for this experience. I’m so honored to have worked with Wendy Red Star, her studio manager, Epiphany Couch, the staff, the curators Theresa Papanikolas and Barbara Brotherton at the Seattle Art Museum!