Black Indian With a Camera: The Work of Valena Broussard Dismukes

Black Indian With a Camera: The Work of Valena Broussard Dismukes

Southeastern Oklahoma University
Native American Symposium
2005-Proceedings of the Sixth Native American Symposium
pages 40-46

Sarita Cannon
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

In this paper, I examine the liberatory photography of a living African-Choctaw-French American artist, Valena Broussard Dismukes. I am especially fascinated by the way in which Dismukes takes the camera, an object that had previously been used as a weapon of oppression against Native Americans and people of African descent, and uses it to capture the spirit of twenty-first-century Black Indians on their own terms. In her series of portrait photographs entitled “Red-Black Connection: The Cultural Heritage of Black Native Americans,” Dismukes highlights the varied experience of Black Indians in the United States and forces her viewers to reevaluate their notions of what a “real” Indian and what a “real” Black person look like….

…The verbal narratives that accompany many of the portraits highlight many issues that contemporary Black Indians face, including the difficulty of tracing their lineage and the responses they receive from others about their authenticity or lack thereof. However, generally the narratives celebrate Black Indian Identity. A few of Dismukes’ subjects discuss how their own family members obscured their “true” ancestry. For instance, Elnora Tena Webb Mitchell (of Cherokee/Blackfeet descent) writes, “My grandparents and other members of my family were identified as Native American. However, there is much information about our ancestry that is kept secret. Being Native American is not revered nor honored by many family members.” It is interesting to note here that it is not the Black blood that is repressed, but rat her it is the Indian ancestry. It was not always advantageous to be identified as Black rather than Native. This choice depended upon historical and geographical context. Still others note how they are viewed as “wannabes” who are trying to distance themselves from Blackness. Gene “Quietwalker” Holmes of Comanche descent says, “There have been people from both communities who react to my heritage on a negative basis and ask, ‘Who or what are you trying to be?’” But Carol Munday Lawrence of Cherokee descent responds to these attacks simply by saying that she is merely discovering her multiple selves: “I fully understand why some fear that to claim Native American, or any other heritage, is to reject one’s Blackness, but this is not about ‘going Native.’ Knowing who your people are, and embracing them all unconditionally, can only enrich your life.” And Stella Vaugh playfully embraces this historical moment in which she can identify as a multiracial person: “In fact, I’m having fun boasting about my mixed-race. I jokingly say I’m 57 Heinz Variety. My mother’s mother is Cherokee and Irish. My father’s mother is Bohemian and his father is Choctaw. I am told that one of my ancestors is black and I’m still searching for that beautiful person.” Vaugh proudly embraces her multiple heritage and openly acknowledges the mystery that still surrounds her ancestry. She symbolizes the twenty-first century Black Indian who is coming out” after living much of her life in a space where she felt the need to repress parts of her identity. If Dismukes’ project can give at least one person the opportunity to feel a sense of dignity about who she is and introduce her to a community of people who also live at the crossroads of Native and African American cultures, then it is, without a doubt, a meaningful political and artistic endeavor…

Read the entire paper here.

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