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How Sue Reynolds photographed her way into American Indian cultures

In 2005, having spent most of her life in marketing and public relations, Sue Reynolds was feeling burned out and in need of a change. She took that summer off, left her home in San Francisco, and attended the Rocky Mountain School of Photography in Missoula where she hoped to augment her background in landscape photography and portraiture. She never guessed that the quiet events of that summer would affect the course of both her career and her life.

It started when she went to Arlee for her first powwow.

"When I walked into that dance arbor and heard the drums, I felt like I was home," she says. "That's where it really all began."

After the powwow she was enthralled, and she attended a number of other American Indian gatherings in the state. It was a revelation for her. "I just looked at how people took time to be with one another, how families came together at these times of celebrations, and I realized these were values I had gotten away from in my very hectic life."

click to enlarge Sue Reynolds started photographing American Indian celebrations six years ago when she went to Arlee for her first powwow. “When I walked into that dance arbor and heard the drums, I felt like I was home,” she says. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SUE REYNOLDS
  • Photo courtesy of Sue Reynolds
  • Sue Reynolds started photographing American Indian celebrations six years ago when she went to Arlee for her first powwow. “When I walked into that dance arbor and heard the drums, I felt like I was home,” she says.

Also, she saw first-hand how racism and invisibility cast shadows over American Indians in today's society: In her class at the Rocky Mountain School, she presented a portfolio of portraits of powwow dancers and drummers taken at the gatherings at Arlee and Elba. She spoke about what she had learned from the people she had become friends with, and how these celebrations are about family, traditions, community, and honor. After her presentation, two young women in the class, both Montanans, came up to her and said "Thanks for your presentation, Sue, and for showing us that there's something to respect about Native Americans."

That statement, she says, floored her. But it also made her realize that a need exists in society for people to build bridges between different communities and cultures.

Each summer Reynolds attends numerous American Indian gatherings, from powwows throughout the Northern Rockies and Plains states to Acorn Festivals in northern California to the Niobrara Convocation in South Dakota, a celebration of Episcopalian Lakota and Dakota that has been held annually for over 100 years. By documenting culture through photography and then presenting it to a wide range of audiences, she says she is helping people take steps towards understanding.

"The photographs really draw people in," she says. "They see that there's this tremendous legacy of heritage that goes back hundreds of years." Often, the meaning or stories behind the traditions are somewhat of a mystery to her audience, which is why she gives presentations to accompany her exhibits. "I talk about the things that I've learned, the behind-the-scenes, the background. And then I say 'Hey, go to a celebration, a powwow, a Native festival. Meet Native people and create relationships,' because that's really the most important thing."

Throughout all of it, she says, "I try to be very, very respectful. I want to get to know these people as individuals, not just as a subject for a photograph. I want to know why they're here dancing, or if they're drumming, I want to know about that."

Occasionally, people don't want to be photographed, and so she always asks permission first, and always honors peoples' wishes. But, for the most part, she says she's been met with acceptance and generosity. "Overwhelmingly, I'd say the Native people I've met have been really happy that I'm so passionate about understanding, and that I'm on a mission to create understanding. I really could not have done nearly as much as I have done over the years if I hadn't had Native people helping me in ways that have been amazingly wonderful and surprising."

This support from the Native community has showed itself in ways large and small. Many memorable moments, she says, have been "simple and yet profound, like the generosity of families at powwows inviting me to join their family feast." A few years ago, a Crow family invited her to photograph the traditional wedding of their daughter to an Arapaho hereditary chief—something that few outsiders would ever get to see.

And on her first trip to the Niobrara Convocation, she was moved to tears by the generosity of the group: "They were honoring all these people with star quilts and beadwork, the bishops and the other people who do good work in the community there. And as it was winding down, all of a sudden they called my name." Unsure of what to do, she remained sitting until the Sergeant-at-Arms gently prodded her forward. Up in front of the congregation, two sisters wrapped her in a star quilt and thanked her. Later, she sat down with one of the elders. "'I still don't understand why I was honored', I told her. And she looked at me and said, 'We honored you because you came such a long way to be here, and you care about us.'"

After six years of photographing American Indian celebrations, building friendships with the people, publishing a book of photography, and giving presentations throughout the West, Reynolds and her work are finally returning to where it all began. Starting Friday, June 28th, and running through the end of September, her exhibit, Understanding Native American People will be on display at the People's Center in Pablo to celebrate the museum's 20th anniversary. A reception and artist's tour kicks off at the People's Center in Pablo Tuesday, June 28, from 5 PM to 7 PM. Free.

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