Visual Sovereignty and the Counter-archive

The dominance of official photography and the silencing effect of public history on indigenous groups have led First Peoples movements to establish “counter-archives” presenting their visual sovereignty. Amy Lonetree recounts a powerful encounter with images taken by Charles Van Schaickof of her ancestors just a few short years after what she describes as, “the darkest, most devastating period” for the Ho-Chunk, a Native American people whose historic territory includes parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. (14)  Invasion, disease, warfare, forced assimilation, dispossession, and repeated forced removals from their ancestral land left the Ho-Chunk people in a fight for their culture and their lives. (14-18) The startling collection taken primarily as family memorabilia serves as one of the few “visual proof of presence” of her people. This propels her reclamation of Ho-Chunk history as a story of “kinship, place, and memory, as well as ongoing colonialism.” (22).

Early in her essay, we are reminded that it wasn’t just a matter of survival but of survivance, defined by Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor as “an active repudiation of dominance, tragedy, and victimry” (14). The term interlocks neatly with the notion of visual sovereignty: both serve the Ho-chunk’s project of actively challenging dominant historiography. Lonetree recalls her grandfather’s reminder that their existence as families is enough testament to the strength and endurance of the people. Along with the counter-archive of private photographs, their own stories belie the oppressive minimization or erasure of the realities of this history. It particularly pokes a hole in “the benign language of ‘removal period’” to describe the historical events happening when these photographs were taken. For Tshinhnahjinnie, visual sovereignty is “divorced from its fixation on the effects of colonization,” and replaces this with the act of reclaiming territory and cultural spaces. (15). These ideas dovetail with Marx’s observation in the Eighteenth Brumaire: “Men make their own history, but they [do so] under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” The Ho-Chunk’s project of creating visual proof of their people’s presence instantiates Marx’s description of how “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Strathman’s monograph on photographs of Indian boarding schools adds insight to the strategy of building counter-archives to challenge the stiff and evolutionistic depiction of indigenous peoples in colonial imagery.

The disconcerting “before and after” images (727-728) were similarly employed in a number of archives and I thought of “forced assimilation” in relation to the policy of “benevolent assimilation” in American colonial Philippines. Western-style formal education was similarly used as an instrument of subjugation. In Stratham’s work, photographs of the indigenous in Western clothing supposedly showed the righteousness of colonial order. Repressed in the images are the lived experiences of the subjects recoiling from the encounter and seeking their tribal identity. Native American students took the camera into their own hands and subverted the western gaze. (741) This is particularly illustrated in the uneasiness of the stranger’s pose that the subject of a portrait assumes when photographed by someone unfamiliar. (743) Rather than following the archival principle of colonial provenance, reflecting the bureaucratic agencies that created records, the counter-archive of indigenous peoples are organized by family and tribe and decluttered from colonial labellings.

From Lonetree and Strathman we learn that visual sovereignty involves drawing attention to historical acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide buried underneath the images of colonial order. At the same, both scholars echo Tsinhnahjinnie in stating that the goal of visual sovereignty is not to win outsider recognition, but rather to dismantle its privileged position. (Tsinhnahjinnie 15, 16; Lonetree 15, 22; Strathman 733)

Further reading

  1. Amy Lonetree, “Visualizing Native Survivance Encounters with My Ho-Chunk Ancestors in the Family Photographs of Charles Van Schaick,” in Lonetree with Tom Jones, Michael Schmudlach, Matthew Daniel Mason and George A. Greendeer, People of the Big Voice: Photographs of HoChunk Families by Charles Van Schaick, 1879-1942. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2011. 13-22
  2. Nicole Strathman, Through a Native Lens. (2019) (selection)
  3. Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, “Visual Sovereignty,”

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