When I first glanced at the quirky trading post scene, it was little more than a blur from the car windshield and I laughed out loud to myself. “What? Real Indians? Like maybe there would be fake Indians lurking around behind the rez car waiting to ambush real Indians or something?” I did a U-turn, went back and parked in front of the trading post. While sitting in the car, I leaned up against the windshield to get a closer look at the “Real Indians” sign. “That’s so bad that it’s good,” I muttered to myself. “And I bet there are real Indians there too.” It was December of 1977 at the Santo Domingo trading post, just off Route 66 and ironically enough, I was in fact looking for Ndns (Indians). Yes, no kidding!
This “Real Indians” photograph was a sneak preview of the humor and satire with future work, which transformed it into a kind of “wild card, or even a joker” that set an offbeat paradigm for work that continues to involve making amusing art about controversial topics. “Hey, I didn’t make the world so messed up. I’m just a witness to the lunacy.” The “Real Indians” photograph definitely made me feel less constrained with ideas, which was great for a young creative person.
While getting out of the warm car, I could see my breath in the crisp air and rubbed my hands together for warmth. As always, my camera bag was stashed in the back seat hidden under my jacket. For you tech-heads, I did a quick reading with the Sekonic light meter, pulled out the Hasselblad camera and banged off a few quick photographs. I walked over to the old rez car, which was perfect to just casually lean against; it felt like one of our old family cars from the 50’s. I didn’t feel like fussing with anything, so I just kept on my headband bandana. At school I had to hide my long hair which was quirky in the freewheeling 70’s, so being on the loose in New Mexico made me feel like I was just found innocent of all charges and set free. Making this photograph was a total act of rebelliousness on a personal level, like I had Independent Sovereign status and this was going to be my own personal tribal ID card that was a personification of a new reality. Stand back ladies and gentlemen, please make room, thank you, thank you.
I paused and gazed at the sign again. Cool. “I’m a real Indian” I said to nobody, rubbed my hands together again to warm them up and put the stuff away in the camera bag. The inside of the trading post was quiet and dim. Part of it was dirt floor and the adobe walls were full of old photographs. In the corner was a display of new Pendleton blankets. The air smelled aromatic with piñon wood burning in a rustic corner fireplace. The wood crackled as it burned and it felt homey and warm. There was an elderly white haired man behind a big rectangle of glass cases full of beautiful handmade turquoise and silver jewelry. He greeted me and said something in his own language. I didn’t understand it, so I introduced myself giving my Tlingit name and described our clan house as my mom taught me. He smiled warmly and offered his hand to shake. We talked about how it’s cold there too and he laughed when I told him I thought it would be hot in New Mexico. “Yes, it gets hot; you came at a good time for an Alaskan kid,” he smiled (“I’m a kid” I thought to myself).
I mentioned that I was looking for a warm Pendleton blanket and asked how much they were. He walked over to the display and pulled one out saying that he could sell this one at his cost because I looked like I need a good blanket. It was their classic Chief Joseph blanket in off white. He said “It is for protecting the people and about the search for truth. This is a good one for you” he said quietly, walking over to the fire and sitting down. It was a very beautiful blanket and doubted if I could ever find one from such a good natured guy. As I was handing him the cash, I told him that this was money from my mom and she’d be happy to know that I’d gotten something nice to show for this journey. He smiled again and said, “Watch out for cattle on the road, some of them are out wandering around and the old one doesn’t see so well anymore.”
This “Real Indians Fortieth Year Edition” of twenty of the photographs was printed personally by myself using Ilford Art 300 silver gelatin paper. It felt honest to be in a darkroom again; I didn’t rely on any fancy Photoshop tricks to get it right. I still had the original printing instructions on the glassine negative holder, followed them and the first print came out perfect, which is amazing for darkroom work. The prints don’t have an edition number like with lithographs or Monoprints from a plate. These silver prints are unique because I don’t make many darkroom prints anymore.
The paper has a 100% fairly heavy cotton base and what they call an “eggshell sheen” for the surface. It’s a very beautiful paper and as with so many of the classic papers I’ve used over the decades, this one met my tight standards for durability and just plain beauty. I’ve always been very discerning with the silver darkroom papers I select, and it takes a master photographer to pull everything out of this paper. I gave the paper the rigorous archival treatment with a double fix and archival wash. It was a true labor of love to be back in the darkroom and do the labor intensive and meticulous work needed to make the prints. It felt like the world was spinning okay for a change and I have a new set of Sovereign Status photographs to share. No fake Indians here.
Please contact McNeil directly about purchasing a print from this “Real Indians 40th Year Edition,” which is advertised in the Winter 2017/18 First American Art Magazine. Gunalcheésh, thank you.