Our Chiefs and Elders: Words and Photographs of Native Leaders
This magnificent series of images of Native chiefs and elders sharply contrasts with earlier depictions of Natives as 'noble savages' or representatives of a 'vanishing race.' David Neel's photographs of, and conversations with, his own people introduce us to individuals who know who they are and whose comments on the present, coupled with their perspectives from the past, reveal a people with a rich and unique heritage.
Neel has chosen to show many of his subjects in paired images, both in traditional dress, holding the symbols to which they are entitled by hereditary right, as well as in everyday clothing and surroundings. This demonstrates more effectively than any museum display the transforming power of the masks and ceremonial blankets. More important, however, it shows the people as they are - with their lives in two worlds, two cultures - and demonstrates that being Native is not a matter of appearance but rather a way of being.
Many of these individuals were born in bighouses. They reminisce about travelling in log canoes and living off the land. In their conversations with Neel, they talk about their experiences in residential schools, about the potlatch law, and they explain the roles of hereditary chiefs, chief councillors, and elders. But they also have much to say that is relevant to contemporary social, political, and ecological issues.
The commitment and enthusiasm of those who sat for this project are obvious. David Neel's respect for the elders is evident, as is the warmth with which he is regarded by his subjects. And that is what makes this book unique - it is a powerful statement of a surviving race taking its rightful place in contemporary society.