Wendy Red Star’s best-known work upends expectations of authenticity and the stereotypical nature of most images of Native Americans—ever romanticized, popularized, and commercialized. Her turn to the archive as a site of familial, biographical, and autoethnographic exploration rearranges colonial processes of image collecting and categorization. Yet I consider her portraits of place—photographs that illustrate her personal relations with Apsáalooke territory, her home reservation, and broader notions of landscape and belonging—to be what most distinctly drives a new Native photography movement.
In the series “My Home is Where My Tipi Sits” (2011), for example, Red Star gathers different icons of Crow Indian Reservation life (road signs, churches, cars, HUD houses, and sweat lodges) and arranges them into three-by-three grids. Her use of color and the idiosyncrasies of her subjects distinguish the series from the highly formal black-and-white mode of Bernd and Hilla Becher, to which the series is indebted. Whereas the Bechers created conceptual typologies—photographic inventories of US and European industrial buildings, arranged in a gridded series to emphasize their aesthetic status while evoking taxonomic structures—Red Star undermines dominant modernist and colonial strands of classification through these repeated icons of life on the reservation.
Against the collectivity, functionalism, and anonymous seriality of the Bechers’ industrial typologies, Red Star’s subjects are imbued with individualism, personality, and humor. The broken down vehicles in My Home is Where My Tipi Sits (Rez Cars) are beyond repair, yet the spray-painted Xs that mark their run-down status turn the conceptual grid into a kind of game of tic-tac-toe-beater. The taxonomic nature of the series evokes the specter of anthropological specimen sampling and natural science modalities through which Native peoples have historically been studied. But Red Star’s straight images of vernacular reservation architecture and materiality create a portrait of life on the rez that counters romanticization with a touch of grounded humor, similarly used in the FX series Reservation Dogs to so effectively displace the stereotypes buried deep in the American visual subconscious.
In another work from the series, My Home is Where My Tipi Sits (Sweat Lodges), bright patches of quilts, sleeping bags and tie-dye sheets pop from the mendicant domes of homemade sweat lodges. These transient ceremonial structures might superficially resemble temporary shelters for migrants or the unhoused, evoking global crises of displacement caused by climate change and the intertwined forces of colonialism and capitalist-induced inequality, but the deeply personal vernacular structures in fact ground and center the Crow community’s body, mind, and spirit. Rather than merely being the architectural form of a utopian modernity, seemingly opposed to the quintessentially Native form of the Plains tipi, Red Star pictures the dome to be an adaptive and creative response to, and part of, the reservation landscape. In other words, deeply Indigenous architecture.
The Crow Indian Reservation is pictured as a site of layered and ongoing claims to place in My Home is Where My Tipi Sits (Signs). Here, billboards and highway signage differently name and demarcate the aspects of “Crow Country.” Signs for Chief Plenty Coups State Park and a federal work project imply the authority of the settler state, while another sign that states “Non Tribal Members Restricted to Paved Roads” acknowledges tribal sovereignty in Crow Country. The signs mark the borders of the tribal nation, as well as movements across and within its boundary lines (the Apsáalooke word for the settler-enforced invisible borders, Annúkaxua, “a scratch on the earth,” gives Red Star’s survey exhibition its title). Signs visualizes these invisible borders and scratches and likewise pictures the accompanying declarations and contestations of land-based sovereignty.
Julia Bryan-Wilson identifies Red Star’s work as undertaking a form of “Indigenous conceptualism” or “material conceptualism” in its focus on the material culture and everyday aspects of Indigenous life through such conceptually organized documentary photography.1 As Bryan-Wilson notes the specificity of place and cultural meaning emerges from the nature of the photos as “loving portraits” rather than the detached coolness of the universalizing and mathematical nature of the Bechers’ systematic orderings of types. In this intimacy of knowing, Red Star’s icons of place combine to picture the signs, the semiotics, of land claims. In “My Home is Where My Tipi Sits,” Red Star proposes a semiotics of sovereignty, making an essential entry in the canon of visual sovereignty.
- Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Our side: Wendy Red Star’s Material Conceptualism,” in Wendy Red Star: Delegation (New York, NY: Aperture; Dallas, TX: Documentary Arts, 2022), 40.