Sunday, August 3, 2008

Thoughts about Indians and looking Mexican

One of my favorite experiences while staying at the lodge in Whitefish was curling up on the warm couch, surrounded by dark wood paneling, and looking at the amazing photographs in this book:

It's a huge book with gorgeous, sepia-toned images of Native Americans that are startling in their modernity - there's something so immediate and crisp about them that gives them a quality both of being taken a few seconds ago and of being taken in some alternate world. I've always (like many people) been fascinated by Native American culture and history and native and indigenous peoples of every culture. I remember taking a class about Native American history in college and something my professor said rings very true to me... our fascination with native peoples says more about ourselves than about the individuals we fixate upon... meaning, as we are looking from the outside, we imbue them with so many layers of meaning and fantasy that it occludes the reality of their existence. Did that make any sense? I hope so. :)

In any case, I was especially drawn to these unusual (and admittedly Princess Leia-like) hairstyles, enough to pull out my pen and take out some watercolors:
looking at photos by Edward S. Curtis

One image I particularly loved:

I'm partly fascinated with native Americans because my grandfather was a member of a native group in Mexico, and had very "Indian" features. I am often mistaken for being Asian or half-Asian, but I really think what people are seeing are traces of those native features, which were so strong in my grandfather's face and my father's face, but less so in me. It always takes a lot of explaining to tell people that you can be any color of the rainbow and still be Mexican... there's a whole range from blonde and fair-skinned to dark skin with very native features... and I'm "in between." When people say someone "looks Mexican" I think it's funny, because to me what they are really saying is that person looks Native American.

I wished I'd had time to read the whole book, so when I found it on Amazon for only 20 dollars (?!) , I ordered it right away. What I found most fascinating about Edward S. Curtis was the image he had in his mind of what it is to be native. He hated missionaries because he saw them as an invading force that robbed native peoples of their culture and happiness. I find his descriptions of individuals very haunting, and his words say just as much about him as they do about the people he was trying to describe. About the little girl pictured above, he wrote:

It would be difficult to conceive of a more aboriginal than this Mohave girl. Her eyes are those of the fawn of the forest, questioning the strange things of civilization upon which it gazes for the first time.

If you'd like to see all the photos online, they are all available thanks to a Library of Congress project: But I also thoroughly recommend the book, which I am looking forward to curling up with, this time surrounded by skyscrapers, in New York. :)

And by the way, I also ordered a movie I really loved and have been thinking about a lot lately, The New World. I love it because while it honors native culture and peoples it doesn't try to glorify or romanticize them in a way that denies them individuality - it's more about the interaction between two very different cultures, and there's something about the ending that makes my spirit feel like it's flying... it's amazing.


Anne said...

Floresita, Edward S. Curtis photos are amazing!
Thanks for the link.
I used work in a bookshop and used to look at this all the time but never bought a copy for myself :(

Carina said...

Princess Leia was Native American!?


Interesting post, Flor!

Frizz said...

I have some native American somewhere in my lineage but no one seems to know which tribe.

I think your trip pics are amazing. That's my kind of vacation.

Rebecca said...

love your pen & watercolor drawings. you're quite talented!

Hannita said...

I've always loved the Hopi girls with their hair. And I'm with you on the whole "But you do/n't look Mexican" statements. I usually think in my head (but sometimes it comes out of my mouth) "because you have a preconceived notion of what a 'Mexican' looks like". No apologies for not fitting their stereotypes. =)

Olga said...

Such a beautiful post, Flor! (And your memory of what your professor said made perfect sense to me.) I am also sometimes mistaken for Asian, and my grandmother had very "Asian" eyes, so I used to think that maybe there were Chinese immigrants in my ancestry (perhaps they had come to work on the railroad?). It came to me one day in a thunderclap of a revelation that, duh, those features were very likely indigenous--which makes sense, after all, if we remember Native peoples originally crossed from Asia into the Americas.

Chris Salley said...

I love your drawings! The pen work with the watercolor looks great!

Quail said...

I grew up with a lot of First Nations people (in Canada) and now that I'm in England, I really miss the sound of their voices. It's difficult to explain, but they have soft, calm voices. So little is known about these people so thanks for blogging your experiences--wonderful