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Ryan Red Corn Explains "Smiling Indians"

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Ryan Red Corn (Osage) and his accomplice, the filmmaker Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Creek), had a simple idea: A short film showing Indians who are smiling. The resulting video, "Smiling Indians", is “dedicated to Edward S. Curtis,” the prolific photographer who shot many iconic portraits of American Indians in the early 20th century. In Curtis’s endlessly reproduced pictures, American Indians almost always appear to be dour and humorless. We asked the artist/entrepreneur Red Corn (you may be familiar with his t-shirt line, Demockratees) about his project.

What were you hoping to accomplish with “Smiling Indians”?

The big picture idea is we’re trying to combat the control of media. There are two ways of doing it. One is the reductionist view, which is you take it apart, and when you get down to the bottom it’s about criticizing established media. I remember once I went to a conference and there was a panel on indigenous media. All these people who had their master’s degrees were talking about media, and it was all just such low-hanging fruit. It’s easy to pick on Bonanza, I Love Lucy, team mascots. It’s easy to say “Indian mascots are bad,” but do you have anything positive to point to? So rather than just complain about what’s negative, you could produce something yourself.

Is this the other way of combating the control of media?

Yes, that’s the flip side: Creating something new to combat the established media, rather than simply criticizing it. It’s what you might call a bandwidth issue.

What do you mean by “bandwidth”?

Take a visual inventory of Native images—which you can do by just running a Google image search on “Native American.” That will tell you what images recur and what images rank highest. And what you see is that Curtis really controlled, and still controls, that image. And his pictures are really good; they deserve to be celebrated. All jokes aside, he was an amazing photographer. But they shouldn’t dominate our idea of how Indians look or who they are. I think people can only process a certain amount of media. We need to add more of our own images to compete against Curtis’s. We have to be aggressive about it—my attitude has always been, create, create, create. Create more and better art and you’ll take up more bandwidth and tip the scales.

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That’s a tall order given that the Curtis imagery is so dominant. To some extent it’s like you’re trying to rewrite an official history.

Yes, but there are some good Native photographers right now, in the, I’d say, under-33 crowd. By the time they’re finished they’ll have tipped the scales. I’m confident of that.

You do a lot of comedy, particularly with your new group the 1491s, and while “Smiling Indians” isn’t comedy it is certainly about happiness—which is rare in American Indian filmmaking. Is there a bandwidth issue not just with Curtis but also contemporary Indian artists?

Well it’s certainly something I’m aware of. I’ve traveled with Sterlin to a lot of Native film festivals, and I have to say, they’re really depressing. Almost all the films are about alcoholism, poverty, all that stuff.

How did you get the people to participate?

We posted on Facebook that we wanted people to come by the office for a project we were doing. We also went to IICOT Powwow, and Sterlin went to the Indian Market in Santa Fe and filmed some there.

What sort of reaction have you gotten from people who see the film?

It’s very positive. And to be honest I’m surprised nobody did anything like this before. I think of it as one of those things that had to be done – like a crack in the pavement that had to be filled in before we could move forward.