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Photographer Adam Sings In The Timber Wants To Change The Way You See Native America

Crow Fair is unlike any other Powwow in the world. For one, horses and their riders have the right of way on roads throughout the Powwow grounds. It also begins every morning with a parade. 

Crow, or Apsalooke people of all ages participate, some dressed in traditional Apsalooke clothing like Elk Tooth and white buckskin dresses, others in western wear. Even their horses are decked out in beadwork, blankets and painted designs.

Credit Adam Sings In The Timber.
4-year-old Heath Bear Claw rides in the Crow Fair parade.

And huddled near the front of the parade route, a gaggle of white photographers takes it all in.

But when Adam Sings In The Timber photographs Crow Fair, he prefers to be in the thick of the action.

“I’m able to venture into spaces that are reserved for Native people. I can be among them when they’re dancing, I can go into camps when I’m visiting,” Sings In The Timber said.

That’s because he is Apsalooke himself. And he said being a cultural insider often yields more true-to-life images.

“I don’t know that I’m doing anything different,” Sings In The Timber said. “In fact, I’m probably more invasive. But the only difference is that I’m a brown person, too.”

Think about most famous images of Native people. Or better yet, search “Native American” on Google Images. 

“All these photos are of people in regalia,” Sings In The Timber noted while scrolling through the results himself.

There’s one image of a Native politician wearing a suit, some people in contemporary Powwow regalia. But mostly, they’re historical portraits, printed in sepia tone, of expressionless Native men.

“They harken back to who we once were. And while we still are those people, we’re so much more than just feathers and beads and dancing at a powwow. And so I try to change that with my work,” Sings In The Timber said.

Credit Adam Sings In The Timber
Janie Pochel, Derrick David, Anthony Tamez, and Jet Sings In The Timber plant a new garden at the American Indian Center in Chicago.

Whether they’re planting herbs in a community garden or protesting at their city’s Women’s March, Sings In The Timber tries to document Native people as they are day-to-day.

Take his latest photo series, called “Indigenizing colonized spaces.” Yes, all of the women depicted are wearing regalia or ribbon skirts, but they’re standing on city street corners, on subway train platforms or in the middle of a skate park. 

JoRee LeFrance is the subject of some of those photos. When she looks at them, she said it makes her feel proud to be Apsalooke.

“They remind me of my great-grandma,” LeFrance said. “A lot of the dresses that I use in the photos with Adam are my great-grandma’s dresses, and she’s the backbone of our family."

LeFrance is working with Sings In The Timber on another photo series that will highlight 50 Apsalooke women. It’s her job to find subjects of all ages, from all walks of life, and convince them to be photographed by Sings In The Timber. She said the project can only work because of Sings In The Timber’s connection with the community.

“It just has to do with the comfort,” LeFrance said. 

Credit Adam Sings In The Timber

As a lifelong Powwow dancer, she said she is used to being photographed without her permission.

“People are starting to become more aware of [outside photographers] making money off of those photos,” LeFrance said. “So people are starting to charge licensing fees, which makes sense because they’re essentially making money off of us and the work that we do.” 

LeFrance said those out-of-town photographers might publish their photos of Apsalooke people in a magazine or use them to pad their portfolio. But Sings In The Timber shares his images with the community.

Credit Adam Sings In The Timber
Native women lead the 2018 Seattle Women's March.

He usually knows his subjects, but if he doesn’t, he’ll post the picture to Facebook or Instagram and ask Indian Country for help. 

“Within a few minute someone will identify either who that is or who their parent is, or [the subject] will see it, and I’ll figure out who they are,” Sings In The Timber said.

That’s another thing he said many famous images of Native people are getting wrong – often, Native people are photographed alone. But one hallmark of Apsalooke culture, and many other Indigenous cultures, is family and connectedness.

He captures this in a set of photographs of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ people of Northern California practicing their Indigenous foodways. They show women preparing the salmon and sea anemones together, men cooking them over a fire, a group of teenagers serving themselves. The photos convey a sense that the whole process is communal and joyful.

Credit Adam Sings In The Timber

“We’re always in a group. We’re always laughing, and that’s what a lot of people, I think, miss,” Sings In The Timber said. “They’re just photographing pretty Native people. They’re not telling our entire story.” 

Over the years, Sings In The Timber estimates he’s taken 30,000 or 40,000 photographs at Crow Fair. This year, he took a step back to spend time with family, but still snuck a few shots in here and there. You can find them on his Facebook and Instagram pages, and see examples of his past work on his website.

Savannah Maher is a Report for America Corps member, you can learn more about the project at reportforamerica.org

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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