In lieu of Columbus Day and in (belated) celebration of Indigenous People’s Day we are continuing our interview series. Our eighth conversation highlights Amy June Breesman, a Philadelphia-based woodworker and artist working on a series of photographs of queer, Indigenous people and their land.
Amy June’s Holamooki (Shawnee for "shades of red war paint") is beautifully captured and enlightening. She hopes to continue her series and there are links to support the project and cover printing costs to eventually show this work publicly.
Q What is the connection (or differences) of the photo projects Apple and Holamooki?
Apple was a project I began working on as a junior in college pursuing a BFA in photography. My group of friends at my tiny art school were largely queer/women of color and we had a lot of conversations about how frustrating the expectation was to make work about your identity if you lived in a marginalized body or community. Much of our audience at the time was upper-middle to upper class white folks who really wanted a nitty gritty sob story of our politicized bodies and we rejected it. By the end of my junior year, I had earned scholarships to travel to Mexico and El Salvador to work alongside photojournalists working in and representing struggles in their countries. These opportunities, along with Octavio Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude, started turning my gears about First Nations across the Americas. [They] led me to a thirst for knowledge about North American Indigenous cultures and the struggles in those communities (which are my own community) but that I had long rejected as a mixed race and urbanized person. So began Apple. I went to Oklahoma for the first time to go to my first powwow with my Aunt Nancy when I was 19. On that trip she referred to me, more than once, as an "apple," a slang slur within Native community to call someone red on the outside, but white on the inside. The project was about a year and a half of traveling and shooting and learning and unlearning my own preconceptions of what my Indigenous history and culture looks like. Ultimately, I feel like it was too broad a stroke to paint with and I don't look back on it as feeling complete or whole, but I walked away from that work in 2013. I am so glad I did it and it was definitely a jumping off point for how I would later understand my own identity.
Holamooki (translating to "shades of red war paint" in Shawnee) was an idea in my head after attending a Two-Spirit specific gathering through the East Coast Two Spirit Society on Seneca land in upstate New York. It was a long weekend of decolonizing and destigmatizing queerness within Native communities, talking about Indian health initiatives (both physical and mental), and paying respects to the land, water, our traditions, and our ancestors. I left feeling a sense of belonging I had never experienced before and I wanted to share that and generate a body of portraiture that could function as a reference to the beauty and resiliency of queer Indigenous people. So, Apple was essentially a starting point for Holamooki. The first informs the latter, but they are very different in functionality for me.
Q Can you break down the acronym LGBTQIA2S?
The letters break down as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and two-spirit. It's an umbrella acronym I use to try to note that the queer community I consider is an inclusive one.
Q What location, sacred site, landscape did you connect with most on your road trip this summer?
My favorite state that I stopped in was definitely Wyoming. I spent time during the Northern Arapaho Sundance out on the Wind River Reservation in Ethete, WY. I was able to camp and experience incredibly vibrant culture at their Sundance. My friend Darrah J. Perez, a poet, author, and activist representing the Northern Arapaho Nation, really invited me into her world and I feel very grateful for our time together and look forward to seeing her again. She's doing incredible work founding the Wind River Two Spirit + LGBTQ Society and hosting meet ups to connect the queer community out on her rez. Just before then I was also able to do some dispersed back country camping in the Grand Teton Valley which was the most breathtaking landscape I've had the fortune of experiencing. The history of the land out there is incredibly violent, particularly towards First Nations people, and you can feel it in the land and air. And you can feel that resistance and how hard people have worked to maintain their land, language, and culture. It's really something special.
Q Did you find those you photographed or interviewed felt comfortable talking about being queer and Native?
It really varies from person to person especially for this first round of shooting. A lot of folks I was meeting for the first time and portrait photography at its best involves a lot of trust and comfort. My role as a photographer is as a viewer and listener and I try my best to invite people to participate in shaping how they want themselves to be seen.
For some people, their Native or queer identity is what's loudest. For others, it's their profession or their craftwork or their sense of humor. So, each shoot was wildly different and I tried my best to not ask more of people than they were ready to share.
Moving forward with the series, I'd like to make an interview section of the shoot more formal and less of a casual conversation as I definitely felt like I missed out on some good storytelling. I'm hoping to be able to photograph people more than once to build that relationship and trust and allow both photographer and subject to be more open. I am mixed and very light skinned, so depending on where I am and what the context is I think my whiteness gets in the way of people trusting me with their stories and their image. I definitely know that is my cross to bear and is a symptom of white supremacy as it correlates to how Native people have been viewed and shown in media for centuries. It makes total sense to me that I am not off the bat trustworthy. I want to break that down and bridge the gap and challenge stereotypes through this work, but only so far as it makes people comfortable and excited about how they're being shown.
Q What was the response from those not LGBTQIA2S (ie hetero/cisgendered) to your series?
Honestly, my community is so heavily queer that I couldn't totally answer that. I don't know what the response has been. I've gotten a few accolades from peers thanking me for educating them on something new to their world (specifically the concept of Two Spirit identity and how it is proprietary to Indigenous culture) and that feels nice. Representation is so important to me, but I think my intended audience (although two fold) leans more heavily to queer Native community and other Two Spirit folks to feel positively seen and know that they are not alone.
Q Are you shooting film, digital, both?
At this point in my career, I am choosing to only shoot medium format film. So far this entire project has been made on a Pentax 67 with either Kodak Portra 160/400 and Fuji Acros 100. They are definitely my favorite films to work with, and I love the format and feel of using an analog camera for this process. I used to always travel with a ton of film cameras: a Polaroid Land Camera, a Hasselblad and a Speed Graphic 4x5 were my old standbys. Simplifying the format I think has been really useful to make a more unified appearing body of work and has eliminated the choice of what to shoot with which camera which was always hard for me.
Q Are you showing in Philadelphia or elsewhere?
I'm currently researching funding opportunities for getting the work printed. I am also a woodworker and can frame my own stuff, but printing costs are killer. Once I have some photos printed in the flesh I'll start applying to different shows. Though, if anybody out there on the wild web has ideas for grants and/or shows the work would be suited for - please don't hesitate to reach out!
Q How can people learn more or participate in your series and projects?
I consider the series very much ongoing. I'm recouping costs from taking 5 weeks off of work to travel 13,000 miles round trip for this first 20 or so shoots and plan to go back out on the east coast and make another round of work in the late fall/early winter. If anyone is interested in a monetary donation to the project (travel is expensive and shooting film is reeeally expensive), there is a donate button on the Holamooki page on my website.
If you are reading this and you are a person with Indigenous ancestry in North America and identify as queer, I want to meet you and photograph you! I am always adding people to my list of to-be-photographed. Please reach out to me at amyjunestudio at gmail dot com with your name, pronouns, location, and tribal affiliation. No proof or blood quantum info is required to participate. I believe they are tools of colonialism and continue to oppress us within our own community to reinforce the idea of not being "Native enough," etc.
Q Are the featured photos Holamooki specific?
Yes! Everything [featured here] was shot this summer for Holamooki. The landscapes include the Rocky Mountains, Mount Shasta, The Grand Tetons, and The Shoshone National Forest. The portraits include folks living in Chico, California, Portland, Oregon, Greenfield, Massachusetts, and Deer River, Minnesota and representing tribal nations from Canada down to Mexico.