‘We, as a people, still exist’ — artist illuminates Native American history with family photos
In 2009, artist Mercedes Dorame received a gift from her father — a CD filled with images of her family, some of whom she had never seen before. It was a new window into the history of her family, members of the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe who had for generations been based in present-day Los Angeles and the surrounding area.
The Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe, historically known as the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, is one of hundreds of tribes that remain unrecognized by the federal government, leaving them without reservation land and disqualified from many types of federal funding. For years, tribes hoping to gain recognition have been faced with a lengthy, expensive process.
“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 said.
Shortly after she received those family photos, Dorame began to project those images onto different locations in her apartment and then photograph each composition. The result is “Living Proof,” a series of photos that brings her family’s history directly into her present-day environment.
Dorame, now based in Los Angeles, said the work is part of an effort to illuminate the survival of her tribe’s culture amid a historical legacy of violence toward Native Americans in the U.S., including land theft, kidnapping and forced assimilation. She said her grandparents rarely spoke of their heritage until later in life.
“It’s really hard to acknowledge the gaps in your own history,” Dorame said. “It’s hard to acknowledge that there are these kind of holes and places that you don’t know how to fill it in.”
The photos also counter stereotypes of Native Americans that have often appeared in mainstream popular culture — many of them generated in Los Angeles, her home city, she said.
“People really expect a certain image when they think about Native Americans. That image, for a lot of people, was created in Hollywood, in Los Angeles,” Dorame said. “LA created this kind of image of what people think of when they hear ‘Native American.'”
Dorame said her work was highly influenced by her role as a Native American cultural resource monitor, working at excavation sites to give recommendations on how cultural artifacts or human remains should be handled, a process that is mandated under California law. Her father, who has often served in the same role, introduced her to that work in 1999.
“It’s so personal because it’s your heritage, it’s your culture. It’s very challenging work,” she said. “I see that burden on my father so often. And he always tells people, ‘Remember these words: this was somebody’s mother, or father, or aunt, or child. Remember the human element.’ Because sometimes it becomes so clinical. … I think our biggest role is to keep the human element a part of the process.”
Dorame aims to “spark interest” with her photography and other artistic work, bringing new attention to her tribe’s cultural legacy and present.
“So much of what I want my work to do is bring visibility back,” she said. “I want people to know that we as a tribe, we as a people, still exist.”
See below for more photos from the series.