Artist illuminates Native American history with family photos
Artist Mercedes Dorame received a gift from her father in 2009 — a CD filled with photos of her family, some of whom she had never seen before. It was a new window into the history of her family, members of the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe who had for generations been based in present-day Los Angeles, California, and the surrounding area.
The Gabrielino-Tongva tribe, historically known as the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, is one of hundreds of Native American tribes that remain unrecognized by the federal government. This lack of government recognition leaves them without reservation land and disqualifies them from many types of federal funding. For years, tribes hoping to gain recognition have been faced with a lengthy, expensive process.
"No Central Place To Remember"
Dorame said that having no reservation land has had a negative effect on the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe over the years. “I think that because we don’t have reservation land, we’re kind of a splintered group. There’s been a lot of contention. And I really think it’s because there is no central place to have ceremony. There’s no central place to remember. There’s no central place to bury our dead,” she said.
Shortly after she received those family photos, Dorame began to project the images onto different locations in her apartment and then photograph each composition. She photographed the projected images in combination with other images or with objects such as bowls and pillows. The result is “Living Proof,” a series of photos that brings her family’s history directly into her present-day environment.
Survival For Tribe's Traditions
Dorame, who is based in Los Angeles, said the work is part of an effort to illuminate the survival of her tribe’s culture amid a history of violence toward Native Americans in the U.S., including land theft, kidnapping and forced assimilation to become part of mainstream American culture. She said her grandparents rarely spoke of their tribe's culture and traditions until later in life.
“It’s really hard to acknowledge the gaps in your own history,” Dorame said. “It’s hard to acknowledge that there are these kinds of holes and places that you don’t know how to fill it in.”
Dorame's photos also counter typical images of Native Americans that have often appeared in mainstream popular culture, many of them created in Los Angeles, her home city, she said.
Image Created In Hollywood
“People really expect a certain image when they think about Native Americans. That image, for a lot of people, was created in Hollywood, in Los Angeles,” Dorame said. She was referring to the movie industry's creation and use of stereotypical Native American characters in films. “L.A. created this kind of image of what people think of when they hear ‘Native American,’ ” she said.
Dorame said her work was highly influenced by her role as a Native American cultural resource monitor. In this role, she worked at archaeological excavation sites to give recommendations on how cultural artifacts or human remains should be handled, a process that is mandated under California law. Her father, who has often served in the same role, introduced her to that work in 1999.
An Effort To Make Culture Visible
“It’s so personal because it’s your heritage, it’s your culture. It’s very challenging work,” she said. “I see that burden on my father so often. And he always tells people, ‘Remember these words: This was somebody’s mother, or father, or aunt or child. Remember the human element.’ Because sometimes it becomes so clinical. … I think our biggest role is to keep the human element a part of the process.”
Dorame aims to “spark interest” with her photography and other artistic work, bringing new attention to her tribe’s cultural past and present.
“So much of what I want my work to do is bring visibility back,” she said. “I want people to know that we as a tribe, we as a people, still exist.”