Onondaga photographer Jeff Thomas was in elementary school when he first discovered he was invisible. Although his family lived in Buffalo, New York, for most of the year – along with a large proportion of other Iroquois people – he couldn’t find any Aboriginal people in the official history of America’s cities. He might not have known it then, but this realization was the beginning of a life’s work.
Thomas’s exhibition A Study of Indian-ness, which combines Thomas’s own photos with historical photos of First Nations peoples, is a photographic exploration examining the representation of Aboriginal peoples in urban environments. The contemporary shots are as carefully posed as the ethnographic photos, but with a subversive view toward interrogating stereotypes and destabilizing the historical record.
According to the photos in the history books Thomas read after he left school in the 1970s, “Indians” wore full regalia and lived on the land. This romanticized, one-dimensional view of Aboriginal cultures failed to represent Thomas’s reality – and the reality of so many Aboriginal peoples – because it failed to show how Aboriginal cultures had evolved. The truth is, Aboriginal peoples started moving to cities in the early 20th century.
“I think my work is about how the outside world has defined Native society,” Thomas says over the phone from Ottawa. “I want to document where our presence is, and communicate that Indian-ness to the world.”
Thomas spent summers with his grandmother at Six Nations and the school year with his family in Buffalo. This parallel existence led to a fascination with juxtaposition and duality.
“Juxtaposition is an important part of my work,” Thomas says, “because it’s part of my life. I moved between Six Nations and a lower middle-class Italian neighbourhood in Buffalo. I didn’t have to find my culture. It was always there. It just had two faces.”
That duality is best shown in the photo Old Chair, Six Nations Reserve, which speaks to a visible presence (the incongruous sight of a chair in a forest) and a poignant absence (the chair is seatless and abandoned). The chair is of the forest (because it’s made of wood), but not really from the forest (because it’s a European object).
“It’s that play on memory, the past, the change to urban existence,” Thomas says. “How do you nourish an Iroquois identity in the city? There’s no manual or pamphlet to tell you how. That chair symbolizes all the juxtapositions.”
Thomas learned from birth how to juggle those juxtapositions and create a life on the reserve and in the city. His father, however, had a harder time. One photo, entitled My Father’s Hands, shows Thomas’s father wearing both a Mason ring and a wolf clan ring on his right hand.
“It’s about alcoholism and the loss of male role models,” Thomas explains. “The Mason ring reflects the crowd he hung around with at the bar – it was about fitting into the Buffalo scene. The wolf ring is about following through on what my father did in the longhouse, but it was more about status than anything.”
In a series of photographs documenting his son Bear at various ages standing in front of historical monuments across the country, Thomas aims to reflect an Indian-ness that the ethnographic photographers would not see as “authentic.” The photos of Bear, now a hiphop DJ, are a natural counter to the usual stereotypes about urban Aboriginal identity (assimilated, cultureless, homeless, addicted). As such, they reclaim urban Indian-ness.
“The historical photos take on new meaning when they’re mixed up with the contemporary photos,” Thomas says. “The stuff in the museums, the archives, it’s not in our possession. We are captured; a captive culture.
“One of the central things I’m looking at is the absence of Native voice.”
To liberate Aboriginal peoples from what Thomas calls the “historical stasis” of ethnographic photos and history books, the exhibition has also been turned into a 64-page book called Jeff Thomas: A Study of Indianness. Available through Amazon.com, the book combines Thomas’s photos with short text narratives about his work and the life experiences that have shaped it. It also features an essay by exhibition curator Richard William Hill, who is Mohawk.
“Some people think art speaks for itself,” Thomas says. “But how do you get people involved in the conversation? What do they think about when they leave? How do we get that dialogue going?”