In lieu of Native American Heritage Month, the Cal Poly MultiCultural Center will bring award-winning photographer Peggy Fontenot to the University Union (UU) on Monday, Nov. 8 to present her exhibit “Surviving Assimilation: The Contemporary Native American.”
The exhibit, which was originally held at the Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Los Angeles, includes more than 35 black-and-white film images that Fontenot has collected over years as a photographer, from Black Indians to Natives regaining their rights on Alcatraz Island.
The wide range all falls under the theme of how American Indians survived as a culture despite governmental attempts at assimilation, which was essentially the “Americanization” of Indians, Fontenot said.
“They wanted to do way with the American Indian,” Fontenot said. “They wanted everybody to fit into the Anglo-European culture. They cut our hair, they took away the languages, the freedom of religion. Quote unquote, we were savages.”
An American Indian herself (part Potawapomi, Patawomeck and Cherokee), Fontenot has been photographing for decades and showing her photography since 1991. She has won numerous awards from museums around the country, such as the Eiteljorg Museum in Indiana and Heard Museum in Arizona.
All of Fontenot’s work is photographed with a film camera. She believes that film properly represents history — without the Adobe Photoshop effects and editing that seem to be the mainstream methods nowadays, Fontenot said.
“You can go back to my negatives and you can see that what was in my picture was there,” Fontenot said. “To me, if you’re documenting history, the way to do it is with film so you know that what was in the image was actually reality.”
One image that particularly stands out to Fontenot is a photograph she took of a family.
“It looks like an ordinary photo — a snapshot of a family,” she said. “But this particular family had never been photographed before. When I brought them the photo, their response was so overwhelming. They didn’t touch the image — they took their hand and ran it on top of the image and they were just in awe seeing themselves for the first time. Aesthetically it’s not my favorite, but it was an incredible feeling.”
Another unique property of her photography is the color — or lack thereof.
“I think that black and white lends a more seriousness to an image, where color is more distracting to me,” Fontenot said.
MultiCultural Center Diversity Advocate representing the Native American Heritage Series Elizabeth Graham, a political science junior, said she’s looking forward to seeing the effect of the black-and-white photography.
“The message will be really strong,” Graham said. “It’s not necessarily super bright or in your face, but once you actually look at it, it makes you think about things differently.”
Graham has been setting up events celebrating Native American Heritage Month and said Fontenot’s exhibit would be a neat way to represent the different aspects of American Indian culture.
“I thought she just had a really interesting take on it,” she said. “Just surviving assimilation in general sends a pretty strong message. Even though the government has tried to assimilate them, their culture is still strong.”
Fontenot said she’s received feedback on her perspective on the struggles of American Indians.
“I have had so many people come to different events and they say, ‘Wow I never knew that,’ or ‘I never thought about that.’” Fontenot said.
The President of the American Indian Student Association Stephanie Cowherd, an English senior, will also attend. Cowherd said she’s attending simply to explore her interest in American Indian art and culture.
“I’m mainly going just for personal enjoyment and to get to meet her and perhaps talk with her about her work and see her influences,” she said. “As a writer, I gather influences from all around me. I’d like to see how I can integrate my culture more so into my writing.”
Cowherd said she feels Native Americans have little recognition on campus and hopes others will attend to attain some knowledge on the culture.
“I believe that Native Americans are very underrepresented on campus,” Cowherd said. “I think that people shouldn’t be ethnocentric and I think they should open up to different cultures.”
Although her exhibit will only be held for one night at Cal Poly, Fontenot said she hopes to educate attendees about an over-looked issue.
“I think that the photography gives me a voice that I might not otherwise have,” she said. “And that it allows people to look at things maybe from a different perspective. If it can spark something in someone and evoke change — that’s my goal.”
The exhibit will be held from 7:30 to 9 p.m. in UU 204 (Right Wing Chumash). Fontenot will begin with a short video about the exhibit and have a question-and-answer session at the end of the night.