Sometimes a great photograph is there for the taking. You just need to be there at the right moment with a camera — at least, that’s how many people, such as the management at the Chicago Sun-Times, think it works.
But to document a truly complex event, you need a higher level of photography skills, a deeper understanding of humanity, and the patience and dedication to stick with a story beyond the first moment, even when that moment lasts 40 years.
In 1968, a young St. Paul photographer named Dick Bancroft began taking pictures of a group of Native Americans working to draw attention to problems facing their community. Inspired by the gains the Civil Rights Movement made for black Americans, the group wanted to plot a new course for a community that was badly damaged by a bleak education system, economic injustice, environmental destruction and health issues.
Bancroft became an invisible part of the group, which became known as the American Indian Movement (AIM). Floating on the periphery of events in Minnesota, South Dakota, Washington, D.C., and other sites across the country, Bancroft became AIM’s visual historian, and 180 of his photos have been gathered into a book, “We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement” (Borealis Press).
“In 1968, there really weren’t Indian photographers, because film processing and cameras were so expensive,” said Laura Waterman Wittstock, an author and radio host (First Person Radio and Turtle Island: Voices Rising on KFAI) who wrote the text for the book.
“There was never an official arrangement between Dick and the people he photographed. There was an understanding that AIM needed images, and on Dick’s side, he was someone who was in pursuit in images. And because of his experience in Africa [in 1967, Bancroft took his family to Kenya as part of a church group], he came to recognize the dignity that people have even when they are extremely poor. He understood what AIM was trying to do. And Dick knows how to hide himself and get out of the picture. You can see in these photographs how wonderfully he knew how to do that.”
Bancroft’s images document a distinctly 1960s experience, as tribal elders in traditional dress mingle with young people who embodied their own moment in time, in fashion and action.
He got pictures of powwows and demonstrations. He joined AIM as the group organized a peaceful takeover of an abandoned U.S. Naval Air Station building, justified by using language from an 1805 treaty that indicated that land that was abandoned by the government could be returned to the tribes.
He captured indelible images of children attending Indian schools. He also witnessed (and risked, himself) police brutality and arrests, despite being a non-Indian part of the experience.
Wittstock documents the stories behind the photos. The schools were developed to protect Indian children and Indian knowledge, in response to decades in which Indian children were forcibly taken from their parents by the government and sent to boarding schools, where they were made to assimilate (and often abused and sometimes killed).
She explains the bewilderment on Walter Mondale’s face as he arrives to meet with Indian leaders and finds his group has been taken under arrest. She explains the goals behind the Longest Walk, when tribal members from across the country gathered for a 3,200-mile walk to Washington to protest anti-Indian legislation. The pictures are electrifying. The actions made a difference, although it can be hard to see how.
“I don’t know that demonstrations seek victory as an outcome. They seek awareness. And AIM changed the awareness people in this country had about Indians. In 1973, polls found that 97 percent of the population knew who [Sioux activist and AIM member] Russell Means was. They were beginning to see what had been done to Indian people. And not just in the U.S. AIM has reached a global audience and helped indigenous people around the world.”
Wittstock saw, during the Occupy protests of 2011, echoes of those earlier protests.
“The Occupy movement directly addresses the differences in wealth in this country and how damaging that is, which is something AIM talked about as well. Fewer people in the U.S. have most of the money. The Occupy protesters brought awareness about that. They maybe didn’t change things, but everyone understands what is going on now, because of their efforts. And AIM did that too,” she says.
“The things we have been talking about for the last 40 years are still with us. You see the poverty, lack of educational attainment, the difficulty of finding adequate housing. There is still a very high percentage of Indian inmates. So the question is, did AIM not make a difference? The answer is yes, of course it made a difference.
“The third word in AIM is Movement. The movement meant that it was going to change the way society regards Indian people. And that has happened. And beyond the U.S., … questions are being answered about the sovereignty of nations and tribes. That began with AIM.”
Times change, although slowly. Bancroft, now in his 80s, is still taking photos, but the accessibility of digital photography means that a new generation of Indian photographers are able to document their community.
But he was there when he needed to be, the right person at the right moment.
• Photographs on display at All My Relations Gallery, Minneapolis. Events June 15, 22, 29
• 7 p.m., June 19, Subtext Bookstore
• 11 a.m. July 13, Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Har Mar, Roseville.