Decolonization / Time-specific

Pow Wows & Photography: A Story Of An Unseen Error

A year ago, I attended the first pow wow I had been near since I was just a claustrophobic and introverted child being held against my will as a witness to one in a crowded public school gymnasium. Even though I wasn’t having any fun as a child in that pow wow long ago, the memories of how awe-inspiring the dancing was had struck a chord with me. When I (finally) found out that pow wows were taking place weekly and that attendance by the general public was not only welcome but encouraged, I wanted to renew those distant childhood memories and experience them in a new (happier) context. I started going to pow wows with the same excitement that was driving me to explore the local experimental jazz scene.

I didn’t know anyone at the pow wows, and for the first year, I went alone. That meant that I was attending them irregularly, not exactly jumping up at the chance to join in on the dancing (I’m still introverted and that amounts to being pretty shy in circumstances like these), and occasionally doing things that unbeknownst to me were quite rude or even bordering on offensive. One of those things was taking my digital camera along a few times, and taking pictures without asking the dancers first (although I frequently approached my favourite dancers after the fact and showed them my choice frames, and was never asked to delete their photos — and I would have if I had been). Though it seems so ironic that it’s simply improbable, despite literally looking at a moment frozen in time, I did not see the error of what I had done. I could see the product (a stunning photograph) but the process (treating a pow wow like it was a spectator sport) was a blind spot in my vision. I realized what I had done only after The Daily Mail recently released an “article” about the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which consisted of “Look at these photos of this massive pow wow where ten times as many spectators as dancers show up to watch”. I refuse to dignify it by providing a direct link. It’s super gross, even though the photos really are quite amazing.

So what was going on in my head when I had this camera in my hands, anyway? And why did no one stop me or suggest that I reconsider what I was doing (a gesture that has still not been made directly to me, even now)? And finally, why was the photojournalism from the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow such an illuminating event?

When I took my camera to pow wows, it was like the friend I was dragging along with me, only it wouldn’t tell me to leave before the start of the last dance. It was a way to take my experience—which I would describe as exciting, inspiring, and beautiful—and keep some tiny fraction of it. It was a way to share that experience with others, too. Maybe the “right” person I knew would see how amazing my experience was, and I wouldn’t have to go alone next time. It was also a way to take in the beauty of what I had seen and felt without taking a concrete memento such as a lovingly hand-beaded piece of regalia that belongs with a dancer rather than in a half-assed “collection”. It was also a way I could continue to admire the dancers (who have all clearly spent a great deal of time, energy, and resources to learn about their traditional dances, songs, and regalia) without literally creeping them. And while these are all good intentions, the fact that I acted upon them without first obtaining the consent of the dancers was not a reflection of those good intentions.

Had I simply asked for the dancers’ permission first, my actions would not have amounted to objectifying them, which in turn amounts to a repetition of their invasion, colonization, and objectification by European Settlers. At the same time, had I asked for their permission, it would have interrupted their part in the ceremony and completely changed the nature of the photographs I had taken, which should have told me at the time that rather than take a photograph, I should just come back next week and once again take part as a respectful and admiring observer. Maybe without the camera next time, like when I’ve gone every week (or just about) this past couple of months.

Which brings me to why nobody interfered with my photography: my camera made me unapproachable for several reasons, and I had no idea that was the case. First of all, I am not a professional, and I am rarely mistaken for one. I was seen as a voyeur, and I now realize that made it necessary for elders to watch what I was doing, but not for them to stop me unless I was doing something like violating ceremonial protocol by taking pictures of aspects of the ceremony during which photography is strictly forbidden or creeping on vulnerable community members with my camera. Since I didn’t do these things, no one said anything to me. And since I was obviously not a professional photojournalist, no one asked me where the photos were going to be published (and though I took photos at three pow wows that I can recall, I only ever published photos from one of them, and only on free social networking services including Facebook and Flickr). Secondly, I was never the only person taking photos. I just happened to have the most obvious camera in the room. And finally, I was a lone white person at a pow wow. There was a good reason I was showing up there of my own volition and quietly taking in the experience, which meant that when I begin to open up more, the teachings about what I was doing wrong will come in their own due course. And they did. But not from the elder who has been teaching me about the ceremony and encouraging me to dance in it with her. Rather, the teachings came in the form of the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow photo bomb in The Daily Mail online.

When I first saw the article (if you can even call it that), all I could think about was the elder who has been teaching me about pow wows, because I knew she had been at the Gathering of Nations for the past week as of right now. I thought “what are the chances she’s in one of these photos?” I thought of all the hard work she had been putting into her regalia, and how other people would have the opportunity to admire it if she were to appear in the photos. Then my thoughts went off in a million directions about when she’s coming back, and leather work she has given me the skill to do, and anticipation about her stories from her trip to Albuquerque—for which she had been positively bursting with excitement for months, right up to the night before. I was thinking about all the things she had been telling me about the Gathering of Nations, and the profound respect for the spiritual side of the ceremony that she has taught me (and which was also clearly her primary motivator for taking part). I went back to some beading I had been doing all day at that point, and all these thoughts were set aside for a couple of hours.

When I was taking a break from beading, I observed dissent toward the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow from indigenous peoples in my community and beyond. I found it perplexing until just moments later, when I observed a comparison between the Gathering of Nations and a super-gross beauty pageant called “Miss Indian World”. Suddenly, without even thinking about how The Daily Mail had reflected the nature of my own error last year right back at me, I hammered out a reply to someone in which I expressed that until I had seen that “article”, I didn’t realize the Gathering of Nations was being treated as a spectator sport.  There is simply so much more to the pow wow than any photograph or album can possibly convey, that there is really no way to take a candid photo of the event without objectifying it. The introspective breakthrough that has resulted in this piece of writing naturally flowed out from that moment.

We all have blind spots like these somewhere in our lives. If you happen to be new to pow wows or similar ceremonies revolving around First Nations or Native American dances (i.e., indigenous peoples’ ceremonies), and like me, you’re going there alone until you can find or meet someone to go with you, I hope you’ll consider leaving your camera at home out of respect. I can’t guarantee you that you’ll be told why what you’re doing is bordering on offensive, even if you have the best intentions and the consent of the dancers, if you take a camera with you to a pow wow.

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