Unearthed: A Photographic Search for Native American History through the Landscape
I began the series Unearthed: A Photographic Search for Native American History through the Landscape in 2003, upon moving from Michigan to Georgia. The series began in part because Georgia’s Indian Mounds intrigued me visually, and in part because I wanted to learn more about the people who once lived there. Admittedly, the series began with romantic notions of capturing the essence of mysterious ancient monuments. From the first shoot at the Etowah Indian Mounds in Cartersville, Georgia, however, I knew that the idea of romanticizing the places where Native people once lived was impossible and wrong. When I arrived at Etowah and climbed to the top of the almost six story high temple mound, view camera and tripod on my back, I found a sign in the center that read, “No spiritual activity of any kind is allowed at the mound site”, and in the distance was a structure that looked like a nuclear power plant. I wondered why people were not allowed to pray or to have ceremonies at a place that was considered sacred to the Cherokees and Creeks and why a nuclear power plant was erected so close to a sacred site. That first experience set the tone for the series, which has become a visual memorial to the people who once lived throughout what is now the Southeastern and Midwestern United States. It is also a document of what we value as Americans as evidenced by the marks we make on our landscape through the things we build, preserve and destroy. The research for this series has led to my adoption into the Santee Indian Nation of South Carolina. My relationship with the Santee and my personal research have led me to understand our nation’s history in a much more complex way than I had understood it before. Simply put, government efforts to “civilize” native people by educating them, Christianizing them and teaching them new, more sedentary ways of life was ultimately a way to force them onto smaller parcels of land so that the American government could gain more territory. Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, but our Founding Fathers set the wheels of removal in motion with “civilization” efforts and treaties. Southeastern and Midwestern Indian Nations each had their version of the Cherokee “Trail of Tears”, which resulted in disease, death and staggering blows to Native populations on their forced walks to “Indian Territory”. As I photograph these sites, I wonder how much more culturally rich our nation would be if the Santee, Cherokee, Creek, Potawatomi, Anishinabek and other Indian nations were not forcibly removed from their ancestral lands—if we had truly believed that all men were created equal and could have found a way to coexist. I make these photographs in order to think about those who lived here before us—where our neighborhoods, shopping centers, schools, sports stadiums and playgrounds now stand; I make these photographs in order to think about Indian Removal, the current status of Native Americans, and the racism and greed that still pervade our culture; I make these photographs because I believe we can learn more about our nation and how to improve it by remembering the darkest parts of our past rather than by simply celebrating our accomplishments.