Sam Minkler is a photographer and an associate professor at Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff, Arizona. His photographs, both color and black & white, depict Native American subjects in the portrait and documentary tradition. Sam reference’s the gun as a form of protective power. There are animals like sheep and horses, eye-catching details and bejeweled filigree, remarkable sky and earth, and then also the gun-- held proudly by farmers and those who live close to the land, but also held as if to speak against any further incursion and harm that dates back to American beginnings.
In your contribution to the gunPowers exhibition at Luz Art, what does your artwork communicate about guns?
These two women asked to have a photograph of them holding their own rifles. American Indian women unfortunately have the highest rate of being a victim of a violent crime on and off the reservation. Matriarchy is more prevalent throughout Native America. Women are the owners of property, heads of their families, and are responsible for protecting the Hozho (Beauty Way) way of living.
For those main reasons, the young woman with the gun symbolizes the same concept of protecting the Navajo way of life, and to preserve our tradition within the fast pace of a globalizing world. There is a tremendous amount of energy with ill intent to continue to take from Indigenous people not only in the U.S. but throughout the world. We are only one percent of the population and we’ve been pillaged many times throughout history and still it continues. There comes a point when we need to resort to a more defensive stance against corporate and capital greed.
The photograph of the elder Navajo women was to communicate a strong reaction to what Navajo people witnessed as an attempt to violate American Indian water treaty rights established by the United States. Senate bill 2109, was an attempt by Arizona republican and democratic politicians to “claim” surface water rights on the Navajo Nation. Jon Kyl & John McCain, two Arizona senators, drafted the bill which would go into law that would extinguish water rights for the Navajo and Hopi people. The language in the bill introduces terms that are presented in a deceitful manner. Words such as "waive" and "forever” were presented deceitfully as a “present to Arizona for its birthday” when senate bill 2109 was introduced on the senate floor in Washington D.C. Social media enabled both the Navajo and Hopi people to rally in protest of the greed that targeted American Indian communities and lands. There is also a continuous, endless effort to abrogate our treaties or seek “waivers”. Here is a sample of the language contained in the bill;
The purpose of this act are--
(1) To resolve, fully and finally
(a) any and all claims to the little Colorado river system and source in the state of Arizona of
(i) the Navajo nation, on behalf of itself and members of the Navajo nation;
(ii) the united states, acting as trustee for the Navajo nation, and allotters of the Navajo nation;
(iii) the Hopi tribe, on behalf of itself and the members of the Hopi tribe; and
(iv) the united states, acting as trustee for the Hopi tribe, and allotters of the Hopi tribe; and
(b) any and all claims to the Gila river system and source in the state of Arizona of the Navajo nation, on behalf of itself and the members of the Navajo nation;"
Why is photography your chosen medium?
I was raised in a boarding school that was run by the U.S. Dept. of Interior (Bureau of Indian Affairs) since kindergarten and for 9 months out of the year. I went to U.S. government boarding school for most of my elementary years. I think back and realize how traumatic it was and the effects have lasted for years. It was there I first wanted to draw, but couldn’t. I always wanted to draw as other kids did in school I remember so many of my family could also draw. One thing I remember was my family did have a camera and now and then my mother would get the camera out and set up a studio with Navajo rugs and blankets as backgrounds. I remember my little sister would wash her cat and it was a big deal for everyone. It was always a happy moment to get photographs back from Kodak, or from other family members who were far away in the military or boarding schools like Oregon, Oklahoma, Intermountain, Brigham Utah, Phoenix Indian School, etc. Back in the late 50’s many Navajos were affected by tuberculosis like me. I was sent to Boulder, Colorado via a small, over the wing, single engine plane. That experience has forever given me a new insight to seeing.
Teachers make a profound impact. What do you hope to impart on your students?
I work at Northern Arizona University, as a tenured Navajo professor of photography. I know I help students graduate from a 4-year degree program, but I want to work with students that are artists, visual artists that want to also use photography to show their hearts and thoughts with creative photographs. I want to retain and represent the field of photography as it has been and how it continues to evolve. I realize that photography can be used in a spectrum of utility, as a weapon, pleasure, persuasion, photo journalism, abstraction and totally personal. It can be offensive, non-bias, healing and it captures time in this vast universe. I also don’t think there are enough native Americans working as professors, and glad students have a more diverse experience and have my Navajo cultural perspective to their learning. “Walk in Beauty.”