Photography of Native Americans, past and present

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Photograph of Kiowa children, by Horace Poolaw, Oklahoma, 1928.

Teju Cole, a Nigerian living in New York City, is one of my favorite writers and photographers. In his recent column in New York Times Magazine, he compares the portraits by Horace Poolaw, Kiowa, with those by Edward Curtis.  Poolaw’s images show us “life as it was being lived”, while Curtis photos are contrived and “stilted”.

 

Cole then goes on to give shout-outs to a number of contemporary Native American photographers:  Brian Adams (Inuit), Josué Rivas (Mexica), Camille Seaman (Shinnecock), as well as the work of Daniella Zalcman, a non-Native covering the boarding school experiences of indigenous people in Canada.

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One of Josué Rivas’ many iconic photographs from Standing Rock. 

All of this reminds me, a spontaneous crowd-source event has occurred at the Facebook page for Moses on the Mesa, a short film about a German Jewish immigrant living at Acoma Pueblo in the 1800s.  A discussion on the page led followers to begin posting old photographs of Native Americans, especially those not by Edward Curtis.  Click on Timeline Photos.  As I write, it was updated 18 minutes ago and now contains an astounding 6,866 photos, making it probably the largest on-line collection of Native American photographs.

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Screenshot from the Moses on the Mesa Facebook page

 

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Standing Rock: Victory in Court

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The judge has essentially overruled Trump and returned us to this moment when an EIS was required. 

A federal judge made a mixed ruling today, though largely in favor of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (SRST), that the permitting process for the Dakota Access Pipeline was flawed.

Earthjustice, whose legal team represented SRST, has issued a press release.

The full 91-page decision by the judge is available online.

The judge will rule next week whether or not the pipeline should be shut down while a proper permitting and review process takes place.

This ruling is in keeping with my analysis of the environmental permitting process. When Trump abandoned the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the old and deeply-flawed Environmental Assessment (EA) became, once again, the permitting document for the pipeline. It concluded with a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), while ignoring important tribal issues. The judge apparently felt the same.

For background on the EIS process, and a summary of the Dakota Access EA and its flaws, see this post.

Further analysis of the judge’s decision will be forthcoming on this blog.

 

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Standing Rock mercenaries’ secrets revealed

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Threatening and violent behavior by ETP mercenaries was commonplace during the pipeline standoff.

In recent weeks, whistleblowers have revealed documents and stories regarding renegade behavior by private security firms hired by Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) to protect the Dakota Access Pipeline from protesters.  But the mercenaries went a lot further than that, creating military hype to demonize the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies, infiltrating their camps to plant weapons as a pretext for arrest, and deliberately setting the fire on the Backwater Bridge.  Here are the recent news stories:

  1. The Intercept story (with leaked documents) Part 1.
  2. The Intercept story (with leaked documents) Part 2.
  3. High Plains Reader story about Kourtni Dockter, the former security guard who is speaking out about the unethical and illegal activities of the mercenary firms.

This previous blogpost, Red pilgrimage: right-wing counties send their cops to Standing Rock, documents how it was primarily the most conservative counties, both from local rural areas and from conservative suburbs of Chicago and even New Orleans, that sent their officers with surplus US military equipment to Standing Rock. The three progressive counties that sent law enforcement all recalled their officers as the police brutality became evident.

 

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Birding in Gambell: Native and White cultures come together at the edge of the world

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Main street in Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska.

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Yesterday’s bowhead whale on the beach between the town and the point.

In the middle of the Bering Sea, where the only other visible land are the gleaming snow-clad peaks of the Russian Far East, two cultures meet in a strange but symbiotic juxtaposition.  Gambell is a Siberian Yupik village, named for the missionary that lived there for a few years in the 1890s.  Its original name was Sivuqaq, still a widely used moniker.  Its seven hundred residents are packed into small box houses on a gravel plain Gambell1on the northeast tip of St. Lawrence Island.  Because of its location, midway between North America and Asia, it attracts an extraordinary collection of bird life. Seabirds wing around the point, en route from wintering areas in the Pacific to breeding grounds in the Arctic. Migrating songbirds, both Asian and American, find it a literal island in a storm.

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A “Siberian” Common Chiffchaff, of which there are fewer than 15 North American records.

It’s the latter feature that attracts the birders, hardcore “listers”, mostly from the Lower 48, keying in on Asian vagrant songbirds and the fact that the American Birding Association, perhaps relying more on political boundaries than natural geography, considers the island “North America”.  During spring and fall migration, birders can add an eye-popping list of mega-rarities to their North American list in just a few days. Personally, I saw Eyebrowed Thrush, Common Chiffchaff, and Pallas’s Bunting in my first forty-eight hours there.

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Crested Auklets with a Least Auklet; the Yupik occasionally hunt the former.

The birding here is quite different from a peaceful saunter in the woods back home, and it’s not for everyone. It takes on the feel of a military operation on frozen tundra. A group of birders may be seeking a warming break from the thirty-three-degree air in the lodge, which has all the accoutrements of a double-wide used by a duck club. Another group, from a different tour operator, may be out at the point, braving the chill wind at a “seawatch”. Some unaffiliated “independents” may be elsewhere around the village, down along the lake, or over at the seabird nesting cliffs. Simultaneously, all of their walkie-talkies crackle with a report of an Asian vagrant at the Far Boneyard. This is an ancient village site, a midden littered with walrus bones and other artifacts from thousands of years of human survival in an icy world rich with marine life. The decomposing nutrients of the bones create fertile soil for various grasses and plants, which in turn attract birds in this treeless landscape. There is the Near Boneyard, the Far Boneyard, and the Circular Boneyard, all within a short walk of the current townsite. But walking is a chore here, slogging thru deep pebble gravel. It warms you up, strengthens your ankles, and wears you out. The birders jump on their ATV’s (called “Hondas” by the locals) and rumble to their destination. The twenty-Honda convoy rumbles through the village, swings to one side of the boneyard, everyone hops off, and then forty birders, for they all rode double, assemble into formation. Spread out in a line, they walk in lock step, sweeping the boneyard for any movement with their Swarovski binoculars, Leica scopes, and Canon 400mm lenses, the total cost of which just about equals the $8,000 per capita income for Gambell. When one considers that a few days on Gambell, including airfare from Nome, lodging, and Honda rental, will set you back a thousand dollars or more, those who travel here are only the most dedicated, committed, or obsessed.

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An umiaq frame, to be covered with walrus hide for hunting whales.

The native Yupik are likewise determined, though they use nature in a different way. While the birders are, in general, wealthy, older, and white, the Yupik are poor, eking out an existence that utilizes both traditional hunting and modern entrepreneurship to make ends meet. For them, nature is a resource they have relied on for thousands of years and, despite a connection to the modern world, they still rely on it extensively. They take a few bowhead whales each spring, physically throwing an explosive-tipped harpoon from a small skiff (called an umiaq) powered by a small outboard motor.  In the old days they used sails, which the elders still prefer. The skiff may be aluminum or walrus-hide.  When we were there, they brought in a minke whale, which they take when they can get them.  The meat is shared around the community, but the credit went to the seventeen-year old at the helm of the harpoonist’s boat. We also saw many gray whales migrating past, but these are not on the Yupik menu.  Racks outside some of the homes were hung with seal meat, drying in the Arctic sun.  But the primary target of the

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Seal meat left to dry on a rack.

islanders is the walrus, prized for their ivory tusks.  The St. Lawrence Islanders are known for their ivory carvings. But the walrus can only be hunted when the sea ice is thick enough to hold them and leads open to allow boat access.  This past winter the ice did not arrive until January and was gone by late April, allowing few opportunities for a hunt. The only news I received of the outside world while I was on the island was from an elder informing me that Trump had pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. Sitting in the Alaska Airlines boarding area in Nome a few days later, I listened to two women from the region bemoan the difficulties their hunters had this season. They talked like it was a one-off bad year, but we all know it’s not.

Gambell5Gambell felt like villages I’d been to in Africa, India, or the Amazon. Children were everywhere and had freedom to play. Twelve-year-olds jumped from rooftop to rooftop, ten-year-olds drove Hondas, and six-year-olds poled small rafts out across icy ponds. Dust swirled down the main street, dogs adopted homes (not the reverse), and the single general store was the central gathering place, festooned with notices about church activities, new cigarette prices, and the dates this summer when a dentist would visit. While the adults spoke Siberian Yupik to each other, the kids spoke English, suggesting their language may be vanishing like the sea ice.

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Seabirds wing past the point as the mountains of the Russian Far East define the horizon.

Yet Gambell’s isolation and latitude gives it a unique air. With twenty-four hours of daylight, the town seemed to come awake after noon, enjoy the slightly warmer evening, and to not retire until after midnight. The only exception to this was youth basketball practice, held outdoors at 7am in thirty-two-degree weather. Native Alaskan villages take their basketball seriously. The largest trophy on display in the general store, a multi-tiered two-foot-tall golden and fake marble masterpiece, was for first place in the Annual Gambell Shootout.  The town is tethered to the outside world by four flights a day from Nome (two each from Ravn and Bering Air).

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The passengers on our flight from Nome included me, my son, and lots of Dr. Pepper.

A doorknob or water heater part (for the lodge) can be requested by phone, purchased in Nome, and arrive in Gambell before the day is out. When a plane lands, a half dozen Hondas race from the village several hundred yards to the tarmac, help the pilot offload the boxes, and promptly bring the requested appliance parts to those who ordered them. A fuel barge arrives each summer, delivering the year’s supply of gasoline for the Hondas, heating oil for the household furnaces, and diesel for the local electricity generating plant, as well as any larger items that don’t fit on a small plane.  They get television, and the young people that wash dishes in the lodge play hip hop on their iPhones while they work.  The only other town on the hundred-mile-long island is Savoonga, which is thirty minutes by air or six hours by Honda. One man told me he did it in less than two hours in the winter by snow mobile.

The entire island, all 1,800 square miles, is privately owned by the Sivuqaq and Savoonga Native Corporations. They hold the keys and access is a privilege. The birders are guests

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Inside the store, where a bag of Doritos will set you back $12.

and must acquire a $50 “crossing permit” upon arrival. This allows them free reign of about two square miles, leaving burial sites and hunting areas for the locals. Even within this area, local hunters have priority over birders, and they do enjoy the occasional Crested Auklet or waterfowl to supplement the expensive canned goods from the general store. Even near Nome, I saw Alaska Natives harvesting Glaucous Gull eggs on an island in Safety Lagoon. They explained that, this early in the season, the birds will re-nest.

The relationship between the villagers and the birders, on a day to day basis, is a bit like two ships passing in the night, in that they rarely converse with each other, though they walk past, or ride past on their Hondas, each other all the time. I imagine it’s a bit like the relationship between Himalayan climbers and the Sherpa communities. Like the Sherpas, the Yupik reap an economic windfall from the birders. The lodge is owned by the community, by the Sivuqaq Native Corporation, and its proceeds are presumably distributed to meet community needs. The Hondas are rented by private individuals who post their names on a list. Every evening locals come into the lodge common area to offer ivory carvings, other art pieces, or even old artifacts from the boneyards for sale.

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The dining hall in the lodge.  It’s basic, but clean, with hot showers and a large kitchen.

Their sales pitches often include a personal note regarding their economic need such as what basic expense they can cover by selling this carving. To their credit, the birders bought generously. The lodge was originally created as the barracks for the construction crew that built the large K-12 school, but was then converted into a guest lodge for tourists. Peak season is early June and late September, during spring and fall migration. During the rest of the year, the Yupik of Gambell are largely free of binocular-clad Honda caravans crossing back and forth through their village to chase the next Asian warbler. The mutually beneficial relationship is, in part, the work of dedicated souls from both communities, such as Paul Lehman and Clarence Irrigoo.

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My son and me with Hansen Irrigoo, liaison between the lodge and the birders.

I met Clarence on my first day there. I was out in the Near Boneyard, walking among walrus bones, hoping to flush a mega-rarity. Off to my right, an old man was meandering about, seeming to be looking for something, and gradually drifting closer to me. I imagined he wanted to sell me an ivory carving, or perhaps tell me I was doing something wrong. Instead, his first words, difficult to understand because of his lack of teeth, were, “I found a thrush.” Without binoculars, he was birding, trying to help us. As he went on to describe it, his excitement conveyed he too enjoyed finding Asian vagrants. He told me he was leaving on the next plane, later that afternoon, to join a Russian research vessel to the north. “We’re going to see,” he jiggled with joy and his voice rose in anticipation, “so many walruses!”

“Will you be hunting them?”, I asked.

“No,” he replied. “Biopsies!”

He was just happy, after the dismal lack of sea ice and walrus this winter, to get a chance to be around his beloved animals.  As for me, I was grateful the Yupik allowed us to come to their island.

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Gambell, the Bering Sea, and the Russian Far East; June 1, 2017

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Standing Rock update from the pipeline and the courtroom

Here is the latest, as of May 16, 2017.

Oil is in the pipe

Oil is in the pipe and they are bringing it up to pressure.  The actual first deliveries, and use of the pipe to transport oil, will likely begin around June 1.  They did experience a small spill of 84 gallons at a pump station; the oil stayed within containment berms.  The emergency response plan for the Standing Rock area is mired in controversy, with parts of it redacted and not available for public review.  Note that federal response plans can be rather lax.  Equipment, such as oil spill boom, is not currently stationed anywhere near Lake Oahe and would take hours to arrive in the event of a spill.  This meets federal requirements.

The legal case continues

The case of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe v US Army Corp of Engineers and Energy Transfer Partners continues, with various motions and cross motions for summary judgement on various issues.  Earthjustice maintains a good summary of the status of the case at this website.   The detailed legal documents are available at this Earthjustice website.

The tribes have a strong case on several points.  In an earlier blog post, I detailed the pipeline’s “trail of broken laws”.  Most of these form the basis for the Tribes’ claim today. Note that, because the Trump administration withdrew the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) (itself an illegal act without scientific justification), the permitting document of record is the Environmental Assessment (EA), a very weak document with serious problems.  My analysis of the EA (and a direct link to it) is in this blog post.

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Iconic image from the pipeline protest in September, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New book on the Osage murders featured on Fresh Air

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Ernest and Mollie Burkhart married in 1917. Unbeknownst to Mollie, a member of the Osage tribe, the marriage was part of a larger plot to steal her family’s oil wealth.

In the 1920s, as many as 60 Osage, made wealthy by oil, were murdered one at a time in a complicated conspiracy to steal their money. Many were killed by their white husbands or relatives, who married them deliberately to kill them.  Eventually, once white allies were killed, the FBI investigated; it was one of their first murder cases.

A new book is out on the subject, Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann.  His interview on NPR’s Fresh Air outlines the story.

 

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Two Spirits and LGBTQ, similarities and differences

Here is a nice piece from Indian County Today discussing this topic.

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