As I review the photographs in this book the rain is falling again and my mind wanders, past the Whispering Pines I met near Kamloops, British Columbia and the Miccosukee I met in the Florida Everglades near Miami. But I keep returning to the picture of Raymond. On a rainy day in July, the twelfth, 2006 I photographed some Indians of a small group of homeless people hanging around a Native grocery store in the center of Yellowknife the capital of the Canadian Northwest Territories on the shores of the Great Slave Lake. Amongst those was forty-six year old Raymond Eagle, a member of the Dene Nation. I remember very well what was written on his dirty T-shirt Let the Spirit Soar. As with everyone else who agreed to be photographed, I mailed Raymond an 8x10 print as an appreciation for his cooperation. When I asked him where it should be mailed Raymond gave the address of his mother. A month later Muriel Eagle was astonished to receive a photograph of her son and wrote back, I am writing this note just to let you know what happened to Raymond & thank you for the Print. He never wanted to get his picture taken, this is strange...Things haven't worked out for Ray. He got beat up on Aug. 3/06. He has been in the coma since. In a Christmas card later in the year she wrote again to say that Raymond was still in a coma and then gave a short summation of his life. He'd been born on April twenty-sixth, 1961 in Iserlohn, Germany when his father had been with the Armed Forces. After finishing Grade 12 he'd worked for the government of the Northwest Territories, at the Indian Friendship Center, and at Wal-Mart. He was very smart when he didn't drink, she said, but somehow he always went back on the street. Once again, Thank-you for his picture.
Looking away from the dripping cedars and Douglas firs I wonder how I, a man born in 1939 in Wadern, another small German town, got to Yellowknife that day to take what might be the first and last photograph of Raymond Eagle. As I traveled - how long? Over a year - throughout North America - how far? Tens of thousands of miles - during a project to photograph the faces of contemporary North American Indians in Canada and the United States I heard hundreds of stories. Raymond's is tragic. Others are less so. But to all there is an overshadowing pathos and defiance. They made me remember an experience of my own. An experience of a three or four year old that may have given me a sympathy and understanding that connected us. Wadern had been heavily bombed during the war, when I was a young child. I can still see my mother and I running to the bunker when we heard the noise of the airplanes. One day when we came out of the bunker, the roof of our house had been blown off by the concussion of a bomb that fell right behind it. As we slept in our bedroom without a roof, on a wonderful clear night which I will never forget, my mother said to me, look how beautiful the sky looks with all the millions of stars. She wanted me to sleep without being afraid, keeping a positive spirit despite the misery we were in. When I visited some Indians recently I thought that they must be in a very similar situation. They also try to keep the spirit alive, hoping that one day the suffering will be over and everything will be fine again.
The picture of the Indian from my childhood has been an heroic and romantic one. For me, like so many other boys growing up in Germany, there was an attraction and identification with North American Indian culture. As children we used to dress up like Indians to play, captivated by stories of Buffalo Bill and the popular Wild West books of the famed Karl May including his most famous, Winnetou, about a noble Apache chief, and his virtuous German blood-brother, Old Shatterhand. When I emigrated to Canada I eventually learned about the real story of the Indians which is not romantic at all. Now, at the age of sixty-seven it has been a great joy to finally meet the Apache, the Sioux, the Navajo, and the Comanche. It has been, for me, the project of a lifetime.
At about the same time Karl May was writing, Edward Curtis was creating his own romanticized image of North American Indians. In spite of the deliberate inaccuracies of his pictures, Curtis is probably the best known of their early photographers and his twenty volume epic The North American Indian,1907-1930 remains one of the most collected, most published and best known photographic books of all time, and a cultural, historic, and ethnographic treasure. To be fair in mentioning the work of Curtis, one needs to know that he wanted to photograph the Indians for a last time in beauty, even when it was sometimes a complete setup with fake hair and headdresses, because he thought at that time that the Indians would vanish from the face of the earth. For his time and intention he did the right thing. And he did it very well.
I am picking up the thread where Curtis ended, but now, nearly one hundred years later there are no more Great Warriors, their place taken by ordinary people. People who refused to give up. Because of the scale of the devastation to the North American Indian people and their culture, the mere act of surviving, no matter how desperate the personal or communal conditions, was transformed into a heroic one. Just not dying meant the chance to repopulate and give birth to a future. These are my participants. These are the Great Survivors and Great Rebuilders. Initially a title that was considered for Silent Warriors was The Great Survivors, but it was soon decided that the designation survivor had become too overused. There were survivors of the Holocaust; of physical, sexual, and mental abuse; of cancer and other life threatening diseases; of wars and disasters; survivors of all the various horrors that humans are subject to. Out of this list who were really the great survivors? Whose suffering trumped all others and whose survival could thus claim preeminence? We're all survivors of one thing or another - it's a defining characteristic of the human condition, so that to call one a survivor should be to recognize a shared humanity. What should unify us all in a common experience and make us more empathetic does nothing at all as the status of survivor is parsed and competed for. We all suffer and most of us survive and for some reason the significance of degrees of suffering has been diminished. Worst of all, to those unfamiliar with more historic and heroic survivors, the term has been reduced to a game of reality television. I understand what it means to be a survivor.
The Great Survivors would have also made clear reference to Curtis' The Great Warriors, but with a much more accurate indication of the North American Indian situation - even at the time Curtis took his photographs - and how that situation has further degraded in the seventy-seven years that separates these two books. It also described the difference in the approach and intention of each of us. Curtis said he wanted to document the old time Indian, his dress, his ceremonies, his life and manners. My project has been to photograph three hundred portraits of men and women in a style that is contemporary, straight forward, and vital. To begin with, my intention was to photograph my participants immediately wherever I met them - passing on the street, at a supermarket, at a ceremony or sporting event, to capture that moment just after the eyes meet, that moment while the recognition and acknowledgment of a shared humanity was still in our eyes before the guardedness of difference darkened it. I soon discovered that a suspicion and hesitancy documented since the time of Red Cloud and Geronimo clouded my every initial meeting. It could take hours of cajoling and conversation simply to establish a trust and understanding sufficient to take a photograph. Sometimes that's all there was before the darkness of that lingering suspicion returned. Through the face of the North American Indian, I am looking for a reflection of the entire human condition.
I contemplated a great deal about the backdrop my images should have. Backdrops are often used as wish fulfillment, fantasy and fun. At the time of Curtis, Indians were often placed in front of romanticized studio backdrops, in picturesque outdoor scenery, or with the background in hazy, romantic soft focus. While speaking with the participants of my first photographic tests I learned that most of them hated life on the reservation. Many of their ancestors had been shifted from one place to another, sometimes far away from their homeland and hunting grounds, where they felt completely lost. As a result, I thought that it didn't make sense to photograph them with a landscape in the background which is not their homeland. I decided to use a neutral white backdrop instead, which I always carried around on my journeys. I also learned about their love and high respect for nature and Mother Sun in particular. It seemed, therefore, appropriate to use solely natural light. With an even, purifying light and white back-ground my participants stand as with a slate wiped clean.
For this book I photographed the portraits of 312 men, women, and children from 122 different Tribes, Bands, and Nations. Of these Gerhard Steidl and I have selected 142 images representing 85 different Tribes, 40 of them living in the USA and 45 living in Canada. Even so, my photographs are not by any means meant to be a comprehensive representation of the images of the North American Indian people.
To ensure high technical quality for large exhibition prints I used a Mamiya medium format camera on a tripod with Fujichrome, Velvia 100 film.
It is my hope that this book helps to understand the North American Indians better in their ongoing fight to survive, and in their struggles to keep their cultures and traditions alive.
I hope that my uncompromising portraits make people look so that they will begin to see. The Second World War was raging when I was a child and I thought that my mother and I would never survive. Every day after the liberation seemed to me like a gift from god and I have enjoyed each and every day of my life. It is a gift I wish for the North American Indians. I am a great friend and admirer of theirs and want to thank all the men, women, and children who were so kind to let me take their pictures. I dedicate this book to all of them.
by Dion Kliner