Author Tags: Aboriginal Authors, Photography
A descendant of Kwakiutl carvers Ellen Neel and Mungo Martin, David Neel studied photography in the United States and returned to produce the text and photographs for Our Chiefs and Elders: Words and Photographs of Native Leaders (1992), followed by The Great Canoes (1995). His illustrations have also appeared in several other books, including Ellen White’s Kwulasulwut: Stories from the Coast Salish (1981).
According to Elijah Harper in Neel’s Our Chiefs and Elders, “public images of Aboriginal people have been almost completely negative,” ever since the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Neel agrees. “For well over a hundred years, we have learned to accept a false image of the people of the First Nations,” he says. “The tool used to build this image has been the camera.”
Influenced by photographers such as Cartier Bresson, Cornell Capa and W. Eugene Smith, David Neel was critical of the photos by pioneer photograher Edward S. Curtis whose massive series The North American Indian greatly influenced North American attitudes about Aboriginals. “When viewed as art,” Neel concedes, “they are quite wonderful. However, they are very problematic when one starts to examine them for authenticity, integrity and general content.”
Curtis frequently used wigs on his subjects and dressed his subjects in clothing that belonged to other tribal groups. “This visual cocktail is comparable to photographing a French woman in a traditional Italian dress and offering this as an image of an ‘authentic’ European,” says Neel. Curtis’ pan-Indian approach, born of a colonial mentality and feelings of white cultural superiority, has been endemic in Hollywood films. “When depicted in popular culture,” says Neel, “we are either a ‘noble savage’ or a degraded heathen.”
Recognizing that we all live in a time of the created image and “if you do not create your own, someone will create it for you,” Neel set out to photograph and interview elders, many of whom were the last witnesses to Aboriginal life before cars and gas-operated boats. In 60 duotone photos he provided dual depictions of his subjects, in both traditional dress and everyday dress. They included Harry Assu, Ruby Dunstan, Leonard George, Chief Joe Mathias, Bill Reid, Chief Saul Terry and Chief Bill Wilson.
“This body of work is intended to be the antithesis of the “vanishing race” photographs of Native people,” Neel wrote. “This is a statement of the surviving race.”
David Neel was born in Vancouver in 1960 to Karen Clemenson, a non-Aboriginal, and David Neel, eldest son of Ellen Neel, one the few female carvers on the Northwest Coast. His Aboriginal name, Tla’lala’wis, meaning “a meeting of whales coming together,” was inherited from his father, who received it from his uncle, Mungo Martin. Mainly raised in Alberta, David Neel returned to British Columbia and opened a commercial studio in Vancouver in 1987.
Rather than taking a directorial approach, he now approaches each photo session as a sharing experience, acutely aware that photographs can outlive photographers and their subjects. "Today we are witnessing the rebirth of our cultures on the Northwest Coast," he says. "We can see the end of a period of oppression, and we can see a time of hope for our grandchildren. We are entering into a time in which Aboriginal people have a place in contemporary society. The Native has learned much; it is now time that society learn from the Native."
White, Ellen. Kwulasulwut: Stories from the Coast Salish (Theytus, 1981). Illustrations by David Neel.
Neel, David. Our Chiefs and Elders: Words and Photographs of Native Leaders (UBC Press, 1992)
Neel, David. The Great Canoes (Douglas & McIntyre, 1995)
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005]