In 1800, California’s Indigenous population surpassed 200,000; by 1900, genocide perpetrated by white settlers left roughly 15,000 alive. In 1851, the midpoint of this devastating attrition, California governor Peter Burnett asserted in his State of the State address, “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected.”
“Most Californians do not know this history, and do not understand modern Native struggles for recognition and cultural landscape preservation. We are literally invisible,” said photographer Cara Romero, an enrolled member of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, in an email to Hyperallergic. But according to 2012 data, Los Angeles County is home to more Natives than any other county (about 140,000 American Indian/Alaska Natives). Visibility is long overdue — as well as continued counter-narratives to the story of disappearance and erasure.
Romero is one of six recipients of NDN Collective’s $50,000 Radical Imagination Grant for a public art project in Southern California. NDN (a stylization of “Indian”) Collective works to build Indigenous power through organizing, activism, social enterprise, and storytelling. Romero will use the grant to create “a series of healing photographs focused on the visibility, resilience, beauty and strength” of Southern California’s Indigenous peoples, installing them on billboards and public places throughout the Los Angeles area in summer 2021. Through theatrical, stylized portraits, which she creates with her sitters’ consent and collaboration, Romero aims to “redefin[e] what contemporary Native art is.”
Romero’s non-realist photography prioritizes storytelling and imagination. Her portrayals use contemporary models and pop culture references to challenge Native stereotypes with complexity, vitality, and often, playfulness. Her goal is to “indigenize photography” by using a colonizing medium for liberation and expression; it’s also why “free, prior, and informed consent” is vital to her work. Romero’s photographs honor relationships with her community, and she works to ensure that sitters and elders have input on portrayals so that the result is collaborative, representative, and never exploitative. Her First American Girl series, for example, styles modern Indigenous women like dolls in boxes, surrounded by symbols of their identity and relationships: a cowboy hat, a basket, a gun, a drum. The specificity, individuality, and strength of each photograph presents a stark contrast to rows of blandly identical Barbies or the offensive elisions of mass-produced dolls meant to represent Natives.
“This insight into our humanity is something that is missing in mainstream media,” Romero said over the phone. Where they weren’t completely erased, Natives have historically been portrayed by white people in film and other representations. Romero wants to “look at ways we’ve been misrepresented […] and examine the world I wish people knew.”
Born in Inglewood and raised on the Chemehuevi reservation in Chemehuevi Valley, Romero now divides her time between the reservation and her home in Santa Fe. She describes her urban and rural, bicultural and biracial experience as a common “fluid experience” for many Natives. “What people think Native Americans are is so far from the truth,” she said. “We have come through colonization with so many different and unique stories,” and “we live in all kinds of different ways and ways of being.” Romero aims to portray the variety of those identity stories, because “the more we can tell, the more we avoid a one-story narrative.” This diversity of stories is also critical to countering the reductive mentality that Native artists represent their entire community or race.
Romero wants her photographs “to create accurate, modern, representation by and for Native Americans” — especially youth. “There were a lot of times that the expense of photography was such a challenge that I almost quit. And I think it’s probably the number one reason why kids from communities of color don’t get to tell their own stories,” she said. Working against that poverty mentality, and the myriad barriers of being a Native woman in a white- and male-dominated industry, Romero considers it “a huge privilege to be able to help my community visibility with this really amazing medium that […] is everywhere, but not always afforded to some communities.”
Romero hopes her grant project will help to address centuries of Native erasure in American education and media, grounding Southern Californians in the knowledge that they are living on Indigenous land and should look to Indigenous leadership “to preserve what’s left of our ecosystem.” She plans to reach out to local leaders, including the Tribal Alliance of Sovereign Nations (an organization for federally recognized tribes in Southern California) as well as leaders from two federally unrecognized tribes in Los Angeles County, where her photographs will appear: the Gabrielino-Tongva and the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians. While recognized by the state, both tribes continue to fight for the federal recognition that would affirm their sovereignty. For members of these communities, Romero hopes her photos will provide empowerment and truthful reflections of themselves, addressing the need for increased representation, empathy, and understanding. Romero will start photo shoots in the spring.
Though contemporary Native art is “in the infancy of being recognized” in Los Angeles, Romero thinks “Southern Californians are beginning to understand there’s an entire Indigenous history, and that Indigenous peoples are alive and well.” Although there is still a lot of work to do, she believes in the possibility of a better understanding: “I do think things are possible with that willingness to teach and have difficult conversations and tackle big subjects through art, [which] is where my place is.”