No Picture Taking
Sunday, January 8, 2006
The Maidu Indians lived in Nevada County before there ever was a Nevada County. They have a history with this river. To begin the New Year I had been invited to attend a Maidu ceremony calling back the salmon to the South Yuba River.
This was an opportunity I accepted with eagerness. It seemed a logical and necessary thing to do to begin reconstructing a usable past of the river - Begin with the people who have known it the longest.
Yet as the day grew nearer I met it with a continued sense of trepidation directly connected to my feelings of guilt. At the root of the guilt was my perceived sense of being a foreign invader taking something for my own use and contorting it to fit into my own contexts and designs.
Feeding this sense of guilt and separatism was a show of Zig Jackson’s photography that I saw in Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum a few weeks ago. That Jackson also received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute magnified my feelings because of our shared educational origins and therefore in my mind I manifested a heightened personal connection and responsibility to his artistic statements based on a superficial coincidence.
Zig Jackson succinctly describes my unease with a single photograph and relentlessly drives the point home with photographic series entitled Indian Man in San Francisco and Indian Photographing Tourists Photographing Indians. Jackson sits on a park bench in Golden Gate Park wearing a Plains Indian headdress. Behind him bison are fenced in. He had erected a sign, also appearing in several other photographs, next to the bench:
ENTERING ZIG’S INDIAN RESERVATION
No Picture Taking
No Air Traffic
New Agers Prohibited
The last restriction was a huge concern to me. I very much want to distance myself as far as I possibly can away from the ‘New Ager.’ Jackson criticizes the tendency for those seeking spiritual guidance to take what they deem fit from his culture and disregard the rest. A just criticism. Our own culture has taken just about all that it could from the Native American culture. I don’t want to be a part of taking more. New Agers Prohibited.
Yet participating in a ceremony like this is a sincere form of acknowledging that the Native Americans have a beautiful belief system that is undervalued and virtually buried by our own culture. How valid is the gesture?
I think of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings after Japanese wood cut prints. Van Gogh’s paintings were created with sincere admiration for an art he had newly discovered that moved him greatly. They were beautiful paintings, but the Japanese characters Van Gogh included were meaningless lines approximating symbols from another culture. The paintings were not Japanese wood cuts, but something that would always remain European painting no matter how much he tried to emulate another culture’s sensibilities.
But how can I be critical of those New Agers I distance myself from when I, myself, just participated in a Maidu ceremony to heal the river and not be a hypocrite? I was a curious ‘tourist’ stepping into a sacred ceremony that I knew nothing about, investigating a gap that I find missing within my own cultural context. I even violated another of Jackson’s prohibitions. I brought my camera. If Jackson were there he could have photographed me photographing Indians and I would have been included in his unnerving series Indian Photographing Tourists Photographing Indians. No Picture Taking.
The ceremony was yesterday morning. We gathered at Edwards Crossing under rain heavy clouds and traveled in a procession to Spring Creek.
My camera hung from my neck. As Bill set up an altar I, through my camera lens, greedily became absorbed with the textures and colors that were being built into something with meaning beyond the objects themselves. But once the ceremony started I experienced it through my own eyes, not a lens.
Standing in a circle we conjured a palpable sense of love and concern for the river. It was powerful and it was real. Three women cried. I knew I was experiencing an expression of connection to the earth, denied to us by our own culture, through people who have been living the connection since arriving here. I know that it exists. I know that it’s a real thing that still exists. There is an ancient lineage honoring the river that has its own language to clearly articulate the connection that so many of us feel but seem unable to adequately express. But it’s still not my language. I don’t feel I can adopt this one that is not my own, even as perfected and honed as it is. But I can remember the feeling of knowing and experiencing a language and a palpable connection that exists for this particular river. I can carry this with me until I find a way to clearly articulate that connection myself.
I wonder if Zig Jackson would condemn me for doing this.
It seems to me that it would be so simple if we had a something of a universal language for this like Esperanto. Then there would not be separations formed by guilt or disdain stemming from appropriating parts of different cultures that seem to have gotten it right. I would not wonder if Jackson would condemn me. I would not feel skeptical and critical of others adopting ceremonies and ideals from various cultures while I simultaneously freely appropriate the things from myriad cultures that work for me. But Esperanto has never taken off in this world as of yet as far as I know. Tensions persist.