There’s a myth in America that says Native American cultures are declining—where they haven’t disappeared outright. According to a 2015 study by Pennsylvania State University researchers, only 13 percent of U.S. public school curriculum standards included information about Natives in a post-1900 context.
It’s a myth Ryan RedCorn is trying to counter. “The state of things is not in decline,” he says.
Based in the rural town of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, RedCorn is an Osage photographer and filmmaker—and also a graphic designer, a father, a comedian. Mostly, though, he’s someone who refuses to disappear.
In an ongoing project, he collaborates with fellow Native people—members of the Osage and other nations—to make their portraits, showing them as they choose to be seen. As a Native person, he’s “keenly aware of the distortion” of indigenous representation in media, public education, and policy. As a photographer, he’s frustrated by white photojournalists’ history of depicting Native peoples and places in stories that present the intimate pains of marginalization without always confronting the systemic injustice that creates it.
RedCorn’s photos tell a different story. High schoolers pose for graduation portraits, solemn and triumphant by turns. A master weaver holds up her work. Babies blink in their cradleboards. And though the pandemic has put the project temporarily on hold—“you can’t photograph people without people”—RedCorn is eager to continue when it’s safe.
“We’re supposed to be disappearing, and it’s not happening,” RedCorn says. “Those narratives come into conflict with each other.”
Like many indigenous communities, Osage people have a long history of their images being leveraged against them, RedCorn says.
George Catlin’s 19th-century paintings of Native Americans, including Osage people, were meant to preserve a record of a “vanishing race” erased by colonization and assimilation. This narrative of invisibility persists today. Catlin’s work has inspired tourism to the West ever since—despite the fact that its romantic, nostalgic image of Native people obscures a painful history and makes it difficult for contemporary Native artists to gain recognition.
The advent of photography brought similar challenges. “Photography has a long voyeuristic and exploitative relationship with indigenous communities,” RedCorn says. “Osages are no exception.”
Beginning in the 1880s, white photographers came to Osage communities to make postcard pictures to reproduce and sell. When oil was discovered on Osage land—making them at the time the world’s wealthiest people per capita, since the tribe was one of few to own their land and mineral rights—whites conspired to profit by manipulating, marrying into, and outright murdering Osage families. This “Reign of Terror” left dozens of Osage dead between 1921 and 1925, though related murders stretched from the 1910s to the 1930s.
The postcards, which objectified a community under attack, were a tool of that tragedy, RedCorn says—even when commissioned by Osages themselves. “The photographers were turning around and printing these and selling them,” especially pictures of women, which outnumber pictures of men three to one. These photos were “sought after by white men who came to town with a specific goal of marrying an Osage woman,” RedCorn says.
But there’s a flip side. By commissioning their own portraits, Osages were taking control of their own narrative—a kind of “visual sovereignty” that resisted whites’ incursion.
“They’re in charge of how they’re standing, what they’re wearing,” RedCorn says. “You’ll see things like photographs of women with their backs turned to the camera, which would be very confusing if you didn’t know [that] they’re showing off their yarn work, these beautiful yarn belts that have a drop that comes down the back.”
Self-presentation is an Osage value that existed before photography, he says. When Osages gained control of the medium, “they would put on their best and get their photo taken.”
RedCorn learned this photographic history as a kid, waking up early to go with his dad, Raymond RedCorn III, on trips to the flea market to buy and sell antiques, including photos of Osages from 1880 to 1930. Over the years, Raymond amassed a personal collection of more than a thousand images, which he donated in 2019 to the Osage Nation Museum. An exhibit allowed the whole community the chance to see them, to search the black-and-white faces for their own relatives.
“It’s kind of a melancholy feeling I get,” RedCorn says. “The pictures are so beautiful. But a lot of the people in those photos—their lives were cut short from murders in that time period, on record or not on record.”
RedCorn’s great-grandfather was murdered when his father was too young to know him. What would be a trauma for any family becomes magnified for Indian people, RedCorn says: After generations of assimilation and erasure, the loss of an individual is compounded by a loss of collective memory already “under extreme cultural threat.”
“We’ve just done the best we can to rebuild.”
Ways and meanings
Originating in the Ohio River Valley between the third and fifth centuries, the Osage later inhabited vast areas of Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. After decades of encroachment pressured Osage people to sell their land to white homesteaders, in 1872 the U.S. government forcibly migrated the seminomadic tribe from Kansas to land the tribe had purchased in Oklahoma, establishing the 1.5-million-acre reservation that remains today.
Some 51,000 of those acres form the Tallgrass Prairie Reserve, which safeguards the remnants of the landscape known to Osages for most of a millennium. Unlike national parks, the reserve isn’t known for iconic landmarks or sprawling networks of hiking trails. Instead, a 20-mile gravel road and a 2.5-mile walking trail lets visitors take in the herds of bison and flocks of birds making a home in the rocky hills’ abundant grasses. For generations, the land was used for cattle ranching. The “pristine” prairie ecosystem that once spread across nearly a third of the U.S. has been changed too much to fully return to what it once was. But the reserve protects what remains, providing a home for today’s wildlife—a spirit of adaptation and resilience mirrored by the Osage themselves.
In 2006, the Osage Nation welcomed its first democratically elected government, in which Raymond RedCorn now serves as assistant chief. The nation’s population is about 20,000 people, some of whom, like Ryan RedCorn, live in the town of Pawhuska, the seat of the Osage Nation.
Although he’s lived elsewhere, RedCorn plans to stay in Pawhuska, where he spent time as a child. The ways he learned growing up—a sustainable connection to the environment, “being good to each other,” viewing art and expression as a part of self-representation—are valuable to him.
“I don’t want to leave,” he says. “I want my kids to know [these ways]. I see how people are when they don’t have [this connection].”
RedCorn, a graphic designer by trade, recently completed an MFA in screenwriting, which he hopes to put to use directing indigenous comedies. But photography is his main love: It helps him tell the stories of his people and his home.
“I feel like my people deserve that,” he says. “They deserve me to be at my best when they’re bringing their best.”