Native American Portraits - The Series
This is the first post in a brand new series that I'm working on. Before I share with you my interview with Wes, I wanted to share a little about the inspiration behind this series. Native American history has been an extremely important part of my life since I was a little kid. Before I even started reading, the books I picked out at the library to be read to me were American Indian history. When I first started learning to read, that's all I checked out. Fast forward to 2009 and my opportunity to do photography. Ever since I began photographing, I always knew at some point I wanted to be able to photograph Native Americans, much like Edward Curtis. I had no idea how I would be able to achieve it, but I wanted to photograph and share their stories. Much about what we have been "taught" to believe about Indians has been pop culture like old John Wayne movies, or just out and out lies and myths to discredit their culture. To me personally, my mission is to share with you some amazing people, and share their stories and thoughts of what makes them who they are and hopefully show you that we are all human beings. It's time to come together.
Interview with Wes Collins
I met Wes because I recently attended a Pow Wow at Red Clay State Park. I went to the Pow Wow because I had missed it the last few years and I knew I wanted to get back. Since I attended my first Pow Wow back around 2005/2006, they have always been a really special thing to me when I've gotten to go. When I first started taking photos, I took some at a Pow Wow and honestly, they sucked. It was being laid heavy on my heart that I needed to reach out about my desire to do a portrait series, that it was time. I went to the Pow Wow and took some photos on film of the dancers in the Circle. Outside of the Circle, I had hoped to talk to some people about maybe letting me take a portrait, but everyone was always talking to someone and I didn't want to interrupt. After I shared some of the photos from the Circle, I was honored to hear from some of the dancers that I had photographed. I've been honored to get to know Wes a little bit, and I hope you enjoy his interview and that it opens some eyes.
Ricky - What kind of experiences did you have growing up in the South as a Native American?
Wes - I was raised in the rural area of the county with my grandparents, we didn’t have much and a lot of what we had was grown or made by my grandparents. My grandfather always made sure I knew how to hunt and live off the land as much as possible. He didn’t boast his native heritage and wouldn’t mention much about it, I only knew it as country living. While other kids in my school were going on vacations and spending summers in other states or areas, I spent my summers in the woods hunting. As I got older I really started noticing a difference. The other kids would tell the teacher what they had eaten for breakfast and when I mentioned that I had eaten squirrel dumplings that morning, I was taunted and made fun of. I remember one day I wore a bird skull necklace to school that I had made over the weekend. I had found the skull while hunting in the woods. I took it home where I bleached and cleaned it and I felt I was honoring the bird by wearing it. I was very proud to display it around my neck but still kept it under my shirt as not to upset some of the kids. When my teacher saw it, she got very upset and tried to claim that I was practicing witchcraft, I was very upset and embarrassed to say the least. She tried to have me suspended so my mother had to come up and talk to them. Where I was raised our families homes were all in one area, so at an early age I would go through the woods, with hunting rifle in hand, visiting all my relatives. This is how I spent my days. People would talk and act like I wasn’t being taken care of but it is basically like the adage “it takes a village to raise a child” all of my family took care of us. I may have been poor, but I never felt that way. Money had no value to us. Being close to nature and close to the Creator was of the utmost importance. I was not raised to be well educated, most families put an emphasis on school and I was raised differently. We were raised to stay close to nature and be more spiritual in life. We are an oral society so reading and writing isn’t our priority. My wife, Lisa, is even helping me to get across and interpret what I want to say. I do however encourage my children to continue their education but also try to develop their spiritual side so that my spirit will carry on through them, even though they are multi-cultural.
Ricky - What have been some of the misconceptions of Native Americans that you have experienced?
Wes - There are many misconceptions about Native Americans. Some people believe that we live off the government or receive benefits or special privileges . Some believe we are alcoholics or are lazy. Some believe that we are less than or inferior to other races. I believe in part because of us staying close to nature and not trying to be more educated or caring about money as others do. But this is not always the case either, we are all humans and we all are different in how we choose to live. We celebrate our culture but are not limited by it. Some of us choose to study and stay close to our heritage. Others choose to explore beyond that and branch out in different areas. I believe that we are very misunderstood in our beliefs and our spirituality just like any other culture.
Ricky - What are some of the difficulties of being Native in America?
Wes - Seeing people hurt because of misconceptions of our culture or belief system. Experiencing racism and hatred. Being passed over for promotions or discriminated against because you are considered less than.
Ricky - What are your thoughts on the DAPL?
Wes - Water is life and this is very important. I have actually started writing a poem about this.
I stand to fight with my war cry
My people have fought way too long to just survive
You try to wipe us from the face of the Earth
You people tell us the Crawling Darkness will tell us no lies
But it brings about only death and destruction
in its path It corrupts even our own
Take a look around Our Mother Earth is dying
Her blood is on our hands if we do not stand
The Hawk sent a vision to me
Showing me the Crawling Darkness beneath it
Starving hope from us
To the others lost in the wonders
Erasing us from their heads
Do you even know us
We are free but will we be free from you
Will you see me now
When the Crawling Darkness comes for your land
It will swallow you up and spit you out
The government with forked tongues
They ride their greed and lies
They have children with no minds
Spitting poison into our eyes
The cowards carry lightning in their hands
They thrust it into our souls but we still fight
To the end we still fight
Ricky - In your thoughts, what are some things that need to be done in our country to respect our earth more?
Wes - We need to rid our hearts of greed. There needs to be stricter sanctions on corporations that don’t take the proper steps to take care of our planet. We ourselves need to be ambassadors to the earth, and clean up our lakes and rivers. We need to stop acting like self-involved children and clean up after ourselves, appreciate nature and participate in more outdoor activities. When you enjoy nature you develop a love for it and want to do everything you can to take care of it.
Ricky - What's one truth about who Natives are that you'd like people to know?
Wes - Most are very spiritual and close to the creator and nature. They are kind hearted and always willing to help others.
Ricky - You dance at Pow Wows, and you and I have discussed this a little, can you describe what dancing at a Pow Wow means to you personally?
Wes - It is my way to connect with the creator. To feel the spirit within the circle as all of my brothers and sisters come together making us one heartbeat, this is how we connect. I dance differently at different pow wows, it all depends on how I am being led by the spirit. When I dance I go to a whole different level of being, like I am having an out of body experience. It is a very powerful experience.
Ricky - What's one thing you'd like people that go to Pow Wow's to know about them?
Wes - That it is a gathering for fellowship. When we have the intertribal dances that the spectators should participate so that they might experience the spirit as we do and feel the connection. Most feel embarrassed and are worried how they look in the circle but they need to move past that and open their minds so that they will be able to feel the spirit move through them.
Ricky - What's been your most rewarding experience at a Pow Wow?
Wes - Seeing others moved by the way I dance in the circle. Many have told me that they can feel my spirit and they have even had tears in their eyes from the way I dance, and that they had felt something that they had never felt before.
Ricky - One thing I personally have been curious about. At Pow Wow's, military veterans are honored in the entrance ceremony and many Natives have served our country. Where does that patriotism come from to a country that has done so much to Native's in history and even still today?
Wes - We celebrate the Veterans because they have sacrificed as many of our ancestors have, to fight for a country that we believe one day might be worthy of their service. Whether or not they believe in what the government stands for, this is their home and regardless of those in power the land belongs to the people.
Ricky - Are there any final thoughts that you'd like to leave our readers with?
Wes - We should all take a look at ourselves. We are all human beings and we need to take care of mother earth not only for ourselves but also for our children and our grandchildren. We need to think with our own minds instead of being led like sheep, always questioning authority and demanding to know why things are being done. Stand up for what you believe to be right, even if it goes against the popular decision.
The next excerpt is about me and is written as I like to do with a secret message within a message.
Now you have read me, but do you know me now.
Do I look broken to you or can you show me how to mend the pieces?
I look into the mirror and do I see a savage?
Do I see a beast or a monster inside of me?
All I want is to be set free.
Why am I nothing to you?
Why can you not see my pain?
When I walk amongst the stars will I not see you on the other side?
I am trying to save you and all you can do is deny,
while the crawling darkness lays dormant within.
Can we heal you from the inside or will you become a mindless slave of soulless bondage?
Life begins and ends with the hunter.
The lives he takes; he takes one by one.
The hunter then stands and gives thanks for the spirit he has taken.
Wanting the soul to be remembered for all eternity. The hunter feeds all.