Native Arts | Zig Jackson

Courtesy Andrew Smith Gallery
Courtesy Andrew Smith Gallery

By Dottie Indyke

A deep vein of irony runs through Zig Jackson’s pictures—irony that can be laugh-out-loud funny or can cut with the sharp edge of bitterness. The first living Native American photographer to be included in the archives of the Library of Congress, Jackson stumbles upon satire in the most unlikely places. In South Dakota he found it in a road sign pointing straight toward Buffalo and right toward Bison. But the towns, like the prolific, eponymous herds that once populated the American plains, are nowhere in sight.

When he was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, he roamed the city dressed in sneakers and jeans, sunglasses and a war bonnet, staking claim to land that formerly belonged to Indians. Posed in front of City Hall and along the San Francisco Bay, he portrays himself beside a sign, “Entering Zig’s Indian Reservation,” which warns that picture-taking, air traffic, and New Agers are prohibited.

At their roots, his images of tourists converging on sacred Indian sites and Indians converging on hot-dog stands expose the meeting of mainstream and indigenous cultures in the United States and the struggle of Indians to be seen as complex, contemporary Americans. Jackson deals in subjects such as identity, paternalism, sovereignty, and the commodification of Native American traditions. He is not immune to the strange dichotomies he encounters along the way. In Cherokee, NC, he watched with a lump in his throat as a woman urged her daughter to sit in the lap of a Native man who makes his daily living posing for tourist snapshots. “This guy told me that this is how he pays his rent,” Jackson relates. “It disturbed me so much. But the name of the game is survival.”

The 50-year-old can simmer with rage at racial injustice, poke fun at Native people, and simultaneously bow to his mother’s teachings. When she was close to death, he told her the world was a tough place that demanded aggression. “No,” she told him. “Don’t ever fight.” Yet as a child growing up of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara descent on North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, Jackson was admonished by his mother to stay strong. According to Mandan belief, if he fell down he must immediately pick himself up, or a raven might steal his soul. Jackson illustrates this tale in two photographs of a nude, masked woman dancing in the wilderness, his representation of the figure Mandans believe disguises herself as a raven to distract men from the pursuit of their goals.

Jackson’s family encouraged him to get an education, and he heeded that advice in spades. The sole child of 10 siblings to leave the reservation, he attended Northeastern Oklahoma State University, where he played football and left with a bachelor’s degree in education. Photography was a long-time interest, Jackson says, because of the authenticity of the medium and its multi-dimensionality. “Just one photograph can say many things,” he believes. “You can look at a photo and it can have a lot of impact on you.”

He studied at the University of New Mexico and completed a fine-arts degree at the San Francisco Art Institute. He claims to be the first Native American in the United States to earn a master’s degree in photography. Over the past 15 years his work has been recognized with a slew of honors, including a residency fellowship at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, CA, the New Mexico Humanities Council’s Beaumont Newhall Award for Photographic Excellence, and a National Millennium Survey Grant from the College of Santa Fe’s Marion Center for Photographic Arts.

For seven years now he has taught photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “Teaching is what I was meant to do,” he says. “My students think that photography is something to go and snap. It’s not. It takes time. I teach them about the sacred nature of the work, which is a strong basis for me. Once you hold your work sacred, your photos will have more meaning.”

When school is out Jackson crisscrosses the country, making stops to visit friends in tribal communities from Seattle to Florida. In California he hangs with his militant Indian buddies, and in southeast Alaska he goes fishing with the Tlingits, making a mental note of their unique culture and humor. And he takes pictures. “My images are not really planned,” he says. “I see them in my mind. I observe. I like chance. You wait, and the image will come to you.”

Zig Jackson is represented by Andrew Smith Gallery in Santa Fe.

Featured in “Native Arts” April 2007