A CD filled with old family images led Gabrielino-Tongva artist Mercedes Dorame on a journey to bring them into her day-to-day environment. She placed the images around her Los Angeles apartment and photographed each composition.
She told PBS Newshour that the portfolio, which she calls “Living Proof” is part of an effort to shed light on the survival of her tribe’s culture through a history of violence and forced assimilation toward Native Americans in this country. She said her grandparents rarely spoke of being Native American until later in their lives.
“It’s really hard to acknowledge the gaps in your own history,” Dorame told PBS. “It’s hard to acknowledge that there are these kind of holes and places that you don’t know how to fill it in.”
She hopes to interest others in her tribe—in the past and the present—with her work. “So much of what I want my work to do is bring visibility back,” she told PBS. “I want people to know that we as a tribe, we as a people, still exist.”
According to the tribe’s website, the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe is a California Indian tribe historically known as the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians. The tribe is not one of the many federally recognized tribes in California, which means they don’t have any reservation land or access to federal funding.
“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,” Dorame told PBS.
ICMN spoke with Dorame further about her project and what it means to her.
What really inspired you to take the images in the portfolio?
I wanted to make these people, my family, part of my life again. My grandmother passed away when I was young and my grandfather when I was in high school and I wanted to close the distance between us. I wanted them, and my memories of them, to be part of my contemporary experience. My experience of being Native in a time when it was no longer such a shameful thing as it was when they were growing up. There were some family members who I didn't recognize at all, aunts and uncles, and I hated that feeling of not being close to them so I closed the gap visually by literally projecting their images all over my apartment and infusing their image into my home.
Are the images being shown as an exhibit anywhere? Or do you have plans to show them anywhere?
A few of the images have been shown at various times, but I would love to show the entire series. I also self-published an artist book with the series.
Is there an image that is your favorite, or one that really speaks to you?
There is one image with four women projected inside a desk that was my grandmother's onto a bowl, a wooden box and books. One of the women is my grandmother and the objects they’re projected on are old history books, a handmade bowl and a handmade box. Each face is on a different object and each of the objects were gifts. For me, this image is about generations and what is passed down and how often it is the objects passed on to you that hold the spirit and memory of the person.
You mentioned that the images counter stereotypes of Native Americans, how specifically do they do that? Could you give me an example in one of the images of how you countered prevalent stereotypes?
I think when images are made of Native Americans a certain idea comes to mind, an idea crafted by Hollywood that references some Native culture, but not all. It has been a challenge to explain the diversity and uniqueness of the tribes across the Americas when showing my work and to explain that our tribe might not fit the Hollywood stereotype.
For me it is also about what urban Natives look like and the struggles they faced. My family is from Los Angeles and spent their lives there. My grandparent’s neighbors actually sent around a petition trying to restrict them from buying a home there. They tried to fit in, to protect their family from pain and by showing them dressed in a contemporary style for their time (like the image of my grandmother on her wedding day in a very 20s style dress and hairdo) I hope to show that many Natives lived and live in Los Angeles and we should be beyond hearing “you don’t look Native to me.”