Viki Eagle sets up a stool; checks the lighting, pulls down a long white sheet of paper from a roll suspended high above. It’s the backdrop. The paper is much tattered, torn at the edges from prior shoots. And then, with a little more tweaking and tilting of the lights, she's ready to go.
Eagle, who is Sicangu Lakota, is a photographer whose project, “Real Life Indian,” presents the Native American of today. The majority of her portraits are done in the studio at the University of Denver. She requires nothing in the background. She believes anything – mountain ranges, rivers or a bustling block – would take from the subject – the person. Each Native American who graces her studio is the star, the purpose and pride of her craft.
Hannabah Blue, Diné, poses for Eagle's "Real Life Indian" photo project. Photo courtesy Viki Eagle.
“[What] I want my work to focus on is taking every distraction out of the image to focus on the individual,” she wrote to ICTMN. “I make it simple because I want people to look at my pictures and just simply connect with the person as a human being.”
The charge of this collection of photos, which began as a class assignment in 2011, is twofold: First, present the modern Native American. Second, defeat the antiquated stereotype of Native Americans who don only traditional attire, like the hackneyed stereotypes one sees in Hollywood western cinema.
Amanda Williams, San Carlos Apache, poses for Eagle's "Real Life Indian" photo project. Photo courtesy Viki Eagle.
“I think people are naturally attracted to Native American images of regalia and feathers,” she wrote. “I mean it’s beautiful, but it’s also problematic in that people have asked me in the 21st century if I live in a [teepee], or in general they can’t believe we still exist. … People are not able to recognize Native Americans walking around everyday or in the classrooms. So I think it’s important to showcase to people that we work in education, corporate offices, NASA, STEM fields, etc.”
Eagle, who is also a jingle dress dancer, utilizes social media to promote her photos. In August, "Real Life Indian" was showcased at a gallery in Colorado Springs, but Eagle hopes more galleries will be interested in presenting images of today’s Native American.
Eagle currently studies at DU and is working toward her Master’s Degree in higher education.
Justus Gibson, Choctaw, poses for Eagle's "Real Life Indian" photo project. Photo courtesy Viki Eagle.