Open Letter to Aaron Huey: Regarding Interpersonal and Media Colonialism

To Aaron Huey:

It has come to my attention that some Indigenous women on Twitter have critiqued you about the fact that you took photographs of Lakota ceremonies for National Geographic. It has also come to my attention that you made unsolicited contact with those women in your own defense. Here, in case you deleted it from your memory too, is a record of what you tweeted:

hueytweetstwitter screencaps

(Huey’s tweets read from bottom to top; Lauren and Dawn’s tweets read top to bottom.)

I would like to express to you not only my agreement with their critiques, but the personal offense that I take at how aggressively you have imposed yourself on them regarding this matter. They have every right to critique you, and do not require your permission or approval to say what they like to each other about something you did that impacted their community– but this letter does not speak for them, only for me. I am asking you, personally, to immediately desist in flexing your perceived authority with them, as it is a function of your racial privilege over Indigenous people. You are flexing that privilege now with your refusal to “allow” critique of your work, just as you did when you published photographs of ceremony against the community’s expressed wishes.

Your projects on the Lakota Nation provoke many questions. For example, why is it that you felt depicting ceremony was so indispensable to your project? Ceremony is sacred and intimate, and at the same time, it is a focus of fetishization and commodification by non-Natives. It is not necessary to document ceremony and expose it to that fetishization in order to represent Pine Ridge positively. In spite of hardship and material poverty, the place is electric with life, laughter, endurance, growth, love, and power, not just in ceremony but in the unsung mundane moments of everyday life. Did you skip the gatherings that occur after ceremony, where people talk and joke and reminisce with their families and friends? They are much less exotic, and less marketable than the ceremony itself, but just as telling of the profound bonds, support, and tradition that exist in the community.

What about the poets, the artists and fashion designers creating breathtaking contemporary work from their traditional techniques and aesthetics, or the competitive dancers who bead their own regalia, or the rodeo riders and basketball players? Did you miss the Oglala Nation college where community members can get practical degrees, and educations based on their traditional ways?

Every aspect of Lakota life reveals the resurgence of their nation, and the coexistence of old and modern ways, yet you captured and shared the one thing you were explicitly told was not to be captured and shared. When you published those intimate moments and harnessed them to “redeem” the Lakota from the box your first project put them in, you took advantage of the generosity that was granted to you when you were permitted to even enter that sacred space. I submit that, whether you were conscious of it or not, this focus on ceremony is related to the marketability of Native peoples to non-Native audiences as an exotic commodity.

It is partly for this reason that your actions are suspect. The exoticism projected onto Native ceremony by the hegemonic non-Native gaze is presented by you, and vicariously lends the feelings evoked in the viewer to your work, and thus to you. “The Sun Dance has rarely been photographed” is an all but explicit homage to whatever qualities supposedly make you exceptional enough to be chosen as the one who will be, to use the widely-detested cliché, the “voice of the voiceless.” And while those exact words were not yours, you failed to guard against the inevitability that your work would be presented that way, and instead have played directly into it. This is not about the inherent flaws of journalism in communicating different perspectives, nor about what Pine Ridge is or is not. This is about how you have conducted and continue to conduct yourself. Regardless of your intent–which is irrelevant– analyzing the context of your visit and the work itself indicate that this project is no more than a badge for you to wear as an artist, masquerading as an attempt to “help” Native people while providing fodder for cultural voyeurs who hold their own curiosity in higher regard than community wishes. You may recognize this as a manifestation of the classically problematic white savior complex.

There is a strong sentiment among Native people that, in light of everything that has been lost and stolen, it is more important than ever that their sacred ways are to be protected. I have heard disgust expressed many times over the fact that settlers have taken over the land, tried to exterminate cultures, and now attempt to take ownership over the very ways they tried to wipe out. External assertion of ownership over a community and their stories is, in itself, another form of erasure. It allows that community to become co-opted and redefined, created anew through a distorted lens. It asserts that the broader world no longer has to look to the actual people to get to know them, they can simply look to the external project. This is exactly what you did when you published photographs of ceremony—not to mention the original myopic and harmful representations that those images responded to. You continue to assert your own project as the representation of Lakota people. You are on record in the New York Times saying “Now you can [see all of what they are],” when in fact all we can see is another externally crafted representation (and, in a sense, photographic evidence of socially-ingrained white entitlement).

To document ceremony against explicit directives is an enactment of a ubiquitous settler privilege that says Native people’s ownership over their own identities, cultures, and traditions is less important than our right to learn from them, or our “burden” to save them whether they want it or not. Your glib remark about “needing enemies” also reflects that racial privilege, by demonstrating what you are capable of failing to see. The privilege to have the negative impacts of racism absent from your daily life makes it possible for you to make a statement like that. It rests on ignorance of the sheer number and magnitude of social and institutional obstacles working against Native people in America–a fact that means the last thing in the world they would need or seek is another enemy. Indeed, they did not seek you out, you came to their front door. So when you address these Indigenous women as if they were irrationally combative, you demean them and erase the truth, both of their reality and of your own behavior.

Even the responses you offered indicate your unawareness of how this privilege impacts your life and your career. The project that you used as a defense in that conversation appears to feature cherry-picked messages from Lakota people, curated by you, which support and validate both your position and your work. Since you remain charged by National Geographic with compiling this collection, it is crucial that you analyze and understand how your choices reveal your bias. What you erase is just as important as what you show, and that project and the interactions you have sought out on twitter indicate that you are highly invested in silencing criticism. You have a social responsibility to consider whether it is really of any use to provide a platform to Native people if community outsiders are curating that platform in a manner that suits their own agenda.

This makes it even more disgraceful that you would approach Native women unsolicited on twitter, who were trying to have a conversation about how what you did impacted their community, and aggressively intrude in defense of yourself. In truth, they are familiar with your perspective and motives. They have seen your behavior patterns more times than you can imagine. You, however, appear unfamiliar with theirs. If you are familiar, you are clearly dismissing their realities and prioritizing your own—but I hope not, as that would be ethnocentric. You have, however, defensively shoved your way into their conversation instead of listening with humility and trying to really form a dialogue by moving beyond your certainty that everything you do, when well-intended, must be correct.

This is not an attempt on my part to stand up for those women. They are more than capable of standing up to you for themselves if they choose, although you have not shown them the respect they deserve for that. The authority and power vested by this colonial nation in your respective social positions, as a white man and indigenous women, makes them Davids to your Goliath. How you have wronged them, though, is for them to tell you, if they want. I am addressing the wrong your actions do me, as another white person.

Continuing to assert your righteousness and press this issue as you have is effectively a fight to defend your privilege to prioritize with them your agenda in regard to their people. That is a function of racial privilege, and when you defend your own racial privilege, you defend mine as well. I find this not just a moral offense, but an obstacle to me, considering the importance to my own white identity of anti-racist work. Every time a project like yours dubiously asserts authority on “the Other” and is publicly validated in powerful platforms like National Geographic, it is a hundred steps back for every step forward I try to make for myself and the world.

I understand the discomfort inherent in privileged American identity when confronted with the existence of oppression. I understand the desire to do something helpful. It’s a way to reconcile the context of our existence. But that’s exactly why it’s so important to resist falling into traps like saviorism, traps that make us feel better but actually reinforce the obstacles faced by the people we are trying to support. It is our social and moral obligation to resist and deconstruct our racial privilege wherever and whenever we can, and because that privilege is reinforced so strongly in the world, that requires discipline. If you want to help, it takes work. Not like a project, but real work on yourself and how you perceive and engage with the world around you. It takes restraining your feelings and realizing when they are not the issue. It takes understanding when and with whom to de-prioritize your own agenda, however positive that agenda may seem. It takes respect and humility, and a certain amount of doing what you’re told whether it makes sense to you or not.

And yes, that is an explicit reference to the fact that you photographed ceremony (individual permission or lack thereof aside) when you knew the pervasiveness of the conviction that ceremony is not to be photographed. That was an unethical thing to do, but it was three years ago and the damage has already been done. What I am asking you now is to see how you are perpetuating damage at this moment by imposing yourself on these Indigenous women, members of a community you have capitalized on, for expressing to each other legitimate critiques of your work and your actions. If they had wanted to engage you in conversation, they would have contacted you directly. Regardless of what the New York Times says about you, your behavior toward them has indicated that you are not, in fact, a good listener, which could go a long way toward explaining why they may not have been interested in a “dialogue” with you in the first place.

I am asking you to understand, from one privileged social location to another, that it is incumbent on us to be disciplined and respectful in our work on deconstructing racism. While it is true that racism is about history and institutional obstacles and active personal dislike, it is also how we as individuals treat each other and what we take for granted as excusable or standard behavior. It is about what we expect from the world and from ourselves, and what we feel is within our rights to do regarding other people. You clearly feel entitled to push your way into a conversation between two Indigenous women, and rather than show contrition for that or for your original wrongdoing, you have only fought back. That is not helpful, it’s damaging. I am asking you now to desist in imposing your agenda on Indigenous people, both publicly and privately. That is how you can start to be helpful.

With undying hope and best wishes,

Kelleigh Driscoll

(UPDATE 4/18: I would like to stress that there is reason to believe Rick may not have approved publication of any photos of ceremony, only the rest of the photos in the set. Regardless, permission is irrelevant and this letter is not about him. Also, “Lakota inipi ceremony” has been changed to “Lakota ceremonies” because ceremonies besides Inipi were also photographed. After multiple reader requests, I have added screencaps of Dawn and Lauren’s tweets. References to Tanka have been removed for reasons not relevant to this discussion.)

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24 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Colleen Lloyd
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 14:02:26

    GREAT article. WELL SAID.

    Reply

  2. Sheldon Hughes
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 14:15:29

    Well said Kelleigh. I would have just said “you dick.”

    Reply

  3. CJB
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 14:38:35

    Um Aaron, your ass just got schooled. Look up the word humility, it may be just what you need right now.

    Reply

  4. Deanna Munson
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 15:39:21

    exactly

    Reply

  5. Alexandra Pierce
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 17:26:45

    Getting permission from one person (Rick) to take photos of a sacred ceremony involving many Native people is unacceptable. No matter who that one person is, he has no right to represent all of the other participants, especially if a “no photos” request was made. This is such an ironic parallel to the U.S. government seeking out any old Indian to sign a treaty, whether or not he had been authorized to do so by his people. Shame on you, Huey.

    Reply

  6. Paul Arentz
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 19:56:39

    As being one of the few privileged, Native American Journalist brothers, and sisters to have written about the White Clay, Nebraska issue, as it concerns the Great Oglala Nation/Pine Ridge, ….Mr. Huey, you should not write about matter, which you will never understand, nor respect. I will pray for you.
    ~Paul Arentz

    Reply

  7. Luna
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 20:05:02

    Did he really take pictures of the actual ceremony… Because the only ones i can find are one of people just coming out of an Inipi and some of the Sundance grounds before and after the Sundance…is that what people are talking about or are there more photos? Maybe someone can post a link? Also what did these woman tweet?? The entire conversation is not there, only the photographers response to their comments which we can’t see as far as I can tell….

    Reply

  8. Rain Charger
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 20:54:26

    Hmmm I agree with you Kalleigh. BUT remember also that these ceremonies were given to us for the people. Which doesn’t just mean Lakota, or even first nations peoples. I don’t think there should be any photography at these ceremonies, but what he does is on HIM not us.

    Reply

  9. americanamnesiac
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 20:55:54

    To clarify: I believe the conversation about whether ceremony should be photographed at all is for Native communities to have–that is not what this letter attempts to address. There is a contextual difference between that conversation and when a community outsider takes those pictures and publishes them widely (especially in a magazine like National Geographic, whose theme is basically The Exotic.) That being said, my understanding is that Rick did NOT give permission for the ceremony photos to be published, only for the other photos in the set.

    Reply

  10. francesca
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 21:16:08

    This is a very deeply considered, and educated letter. It’s well written, too. You have thought about this, alot.

    It would be helpful if would you please show us the whole Twitter conversation, in chronologic order. I can’t understand why he is defending himself without seeing the whole conversation. I think you should ALL include the original comments that led to this letter.

    And would you include a link of photos that were taken in ceremonies? I only find images before or after ceremonies.

    Its good to back your arguments up with some photos, anyway. I will be happy to see what you are talking about!

    Reply

  11. francesca
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 21:19:33

    sorry–i meant to say “you should include ALL the original comments”. . .
    (im not so great a writer, you see:))

    Reply

  12. Art Noble
    Apr 17, 2013 @ 10:40:43

    I liked the tone of this. You showed him how to show respect while not respecting what he did.

    Reply

  13. kiku
    Apr 17, 2013 @ 12:16:57

    Now that i read all the comments I can see that he wasn’t “imposing” some “aggressive” thing on you. Your friends accused him of something he considered reprehensible and he defended himself. Maybe you didn’t like it, but Huey clearly felt that he was the one under attack.

    Anyone who looks at the actual Twitter feed can see how nonstop nasty and smear campaigny it is, by the way. always with the same vicious/ultra-self righteous tone toward everyone. Shameful.

    Reply

  14. Michael Ku-nu
    Apr 23, 2013 @ 13:36:52

    I did respond to the article and sent it to Nat Geo and in it I did ask who gave permission to photograph the ceremonial pictures, I was told by Mr. Huey, 2 spiritual leaders, not naming who they were. He did let me know again, that he spent 7 years with the Lakota People of Pine Ridge. A particle clip is shown in the Dec issue of Nat Geo and they left out portions of what I wrote.
    Like, you can conquer a people but you can not conquer their spirit but you can exploit their culture.
    We are all one, heart, one mind and one voice in spirit, not entraped in the mind of an opportunist who furthers their carreer on the exploitation of a people all ready well used by the conqueror in their terms.
    If one is willing to use a people and their cultural dignity then they should man up to some response. We are not children of the anyone but the grandchildern of our Creator, and for that I am grateful.
    Respect for all that around us has allowed through the centruies before the non-North American Aboriginal People a harmonious way of life, living with Mother Earth. We were taught sacred ceremonies and rites which allowed a partiicpant a spiirtual experience which could never be explaned, written of or captured on print, which we consider still to this day as sacred. This is the Great Mystery but allowed respect and gratitude, we are humbled by just having the opportunity to be allowed as a human, a speck of a chance to commune with our Creator in Peace. This is one of the many reasons why, photographs or even the written words of a fascinated mind is unable to decipher the mind, body and spirit of a person’s spiritual exprience, for this is sacred. An sacred need not be audio taped, photographed or translated through a mind who knows not this sacred path, people live, not follow, as a way of life.
    Again, exploitation does occur even without people being consciously aware of their actions on others, this is part of today’s world. There is a spiritual disease which eats all things whilst it is full allready and still wants more, centered only on selfs needs, wants and desires.
    One heart, one mind, one voice, one canupa,,, for all our relations

    Reply

  15. Doris Respects Nothing
    Apr 24, 2013 @ 14:20:12

    I would only like to say that I warned Huey about the photos that he takes and that he has no right to going around the rez like he is from here, there are protocols within any Nation of people. The first time I heard his name was when he was paying our youth in Manderson to video tape fights and I confronted him where he stated he worked for NG which I believed to be BS as he was too fake. I goggled his name and found a website where he also had some porno site and when I brought this all to him next time I seen him all of a sudden it was no longer there. I am against anyone coming to document our problems, pain, and poverty just to make a name for himself as we have a history of this amongst our people. I want to thank the writer for standing like a leader..

    Reply

  16. masqua
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 21:02:13

    What a stupid mess… all so avoidable with a modicum of sensitivity to the wishes of the majority. It appears to me Huey took advantage of an opportunity. In my extremely little activity within and knowledge of ceremony, the very first thing I learned was that photography was not allowed… and that was from another First Nation very far to the north.

    Reply

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  20. Davi Trusty
    Aug 31, 2013 @ 01:03:40

    Whoo! Powerful Sister Driscoll! 100% agreed.

    Reply

  21. Jacqueline Keeler (@jfkeeler)
    Aug 31, 2013 @ 11:01:17

    What was National Geographic’s response? You did forward this to him? Is there a letter writing campaign?

    Reply

    • americanamnesiac
      Aug 31, 2013 @ 18:53:51

      Hi Jacqueline,
      There’s no official letter campaign that I know of, but I would love to see one and would absolutely support it. Their email and mailing addresses are listed here:

      http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/contact-us

      National Geographic has not responded to any of my tweets to them about this. I also tweeted directly at Aaron Huey with the letter and his response was to block me. Neither he nor National Geographic have publicly responded to this issue so far.

      Reply

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