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Jaida Grey Eagle grew up around photojournalists. They showed up regularly to report on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where she lived until she was 5 and where she returned each summer for ceremony and community.

They looked at her. But they never looked like her.

When she expressed interest in becoming a photographer, older people talked her out of it. "They were like, 'You can't do photography,'" said Grey Eagle, 35, who is Oglala Lakota. "'That's a job for white dudes.'"

But she did it anyway, becoming a documentary and editorial photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Times.

Now, Grey Eagle is co-curating a major photography exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art that uses more than 150 images, taken with cameras ranging from snapshot to state-of-the-art, to spotlight how generations of Indigenous photographers and photojournalists have not only participated in the medium but pushed it forward.

Within "In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now," which opens Oct. 22, Native American, First Nations, Métis and Inuit photographers capture distinct geographies and histories and legacies. Mothers and potters and protesters.

"It feels like a new thing that editors and institutions are starting to give more faith back to the community," Grey Eagle said, "acknowledging that they are very capable of telling their own stories."

The show is organized by theme rather than chronology, with historic black-and-white photographs beside contemporary images by artists including Cara Romero and Wendy Red Star.

"It's not laid out in this clinical museum timeline," Grey Eagle said. "It's a lot dreamier than that."

The show builds off the encyclopedic museum's "Hearts of Our People," a 2019 exhibition that gathered and contextualized a thousand years of art made by Native American women. To create that show — praised as "bold," "groundbreaking" and "once-in-a-generation" — the Minneapolis Institute of Art tried something new, working with an all-female, mostly Native advisory panel of 21 artists and experts on themes, texts and more.

"In Our Hands" takes that collective process a step further.

A curatorial council of 14 advisers, including Native artists and academics based in Canada and the United States, selected the show's photographic images and objects, drawing on their diverse specialties and connections.

They first met during the pandemic via Zoom.

Quickly, it became clear that "we were not the first," said Casey Riley, the show's co-curator and the museum's curator of photography and new media. "While the work that we were collectively doing at Mia was valuable, it was building on the work of many Indigenous scholars and artists. ...

"There was this thriving, parallel ecosystem of photographic history that none of our educations had adequately addressed."

Four photographs by Faye HeavyShield, an interdisciplinary artist from Káínaa Nation, stand beside four canvas dresses, a work called “The Grandmothers.”
Four photographs by Faye HeavyShield, an interdisciplinary artist from Káínaa Nation, stand beside four canvas dresses, a work called “The Grandmothers.”

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

That history includes B.A. Haldane, a proud Tsimshian, whose sepia self-portrait, taken around 1920, anchors the hefty exhibition catalog. Haldane sits in the image's center surrounded by photo equipment, including a Kodak Brownie camera. Suited and stern, he looks into the lens as he leans on a model totem pole carved with his wolf clan crest.

"There has been a history of extraction on the part of non-Native photographers in relating to Native people," Riley said. "But Native people aren't passive actors outside of time, outside of technology.

"What the show makes clear ... is that Indigenous people have been working with the medium since its inception."

As part of the curatorial council, Rosalie Favell, a Métis artist of Cree and English ancestry, discovered historical work she hadn't seen before, including some by Métis photojournalists. Growing up in Winnipeg, Favell first encountered photography via family snapshots, albums and slideshows. That "set the stage for my love of looking," Favell writes in an essay included in the exhibition catalog.

With her work, she's mined those family photos "for clues to who I was," she said by phone, situating herself in the Métis people's complex history.

She toyed with photographs of her grandmother, situating one atop a postcard of Winnipeg's Main Street. She toyed with snapshots of herself, including one from her first day of kindergarten, scrawling across it in red ink: "my first day of assimulation."

After her work was included in "Hearts of Our People," Favell became "somewhat of a groupie," seeing the exhibition in other venues, including the Frist Art Museum in Nashville. That show's co-curator, Jill Ahlberg Yohe, the institute's associate curator of Native American art, asked Favell to be a part of "In Our Hands."

Favell, 65, had never before encountered a major museum exhibition organized so collectively, so transparently, so accountably.

"So often, in larger institutions, curators are made to be invisible," she said.

Having a council gives the show a broader knowledge base and awareness of artists, Favell said, which leads to a better show.

"We're all so different," she said. "We're not just one Indigenous people. We're many, many."

Artist Cara Romero’s “TV Indians,” is a highlight of Minneapolis Institute of Art’s new photo exhibition “In Our Hands.”
Artist Cara Romero’s “TV Indians,” is a highlight of Minneapolis Institute of Art’s new photo exhibition “In Our Hands.”

Cara Romero, Courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art

A graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts, Grey Eagle was new to her role as the museum's Shakopee Mdewakanton Fellow when she and the women who would become her co-curators began discussing a photo project.

But she had seen "Hearts of Our People" — again and again.

"I ended up coming three or four times," Grey Eagle said during an interview inside Mia's photo study room. She and a friend pitched in to buy a catalog, and she learned how the show was "created in community."

When she learned that Mia hoped to root this show in a similar process, she thought, "OK, that feels so good to me."

Imagining young Native artists, people like her younger self, encountering "In Our Hands," Grey Eagle began to cry. "I don't want to get emotional," she said. But her eyes filled with tears. Her hands trembled.

For those Native kids who love photography to "know they have a rich and deep history within it" is important, she added later, "because when I was a kid in school here in Minnesota, I so often felt erased from most histories.

"I just hope this helps not only Native kids but people in general to appreciate the dedication and contributions of Native photographers to the medium."