I had my first opportunity to ride the Rail Runner train between Santa Fe and Albuquerque on Monday. The best thing about the new rail route is that it does not follow the freeway the whole way. One of the best stops is the Kewa Pueblo Station (previously known as Santo Domingo Pueblo). Some bracing has been done to keep the old burned out “Real Indians” storefront from further collapse. It’s a landmark not just because it is a surviving piece of tourism history, Indian kitsch, or just plain old, but because it was the site of one of Larry McNeil’s early works: Real Indians, from 1977.
From the Kewa Train Station - the site of Larry McNeil's 1977 photograph "Real Indians" as seen in 2010. Photo by the Author.
My first encounter with McNeil’s Real Indians came from the exhibition catalogue for Indian Humor, a travelling exhibition from 1995 organized byAmerican Indian Contemporary Arts (which was based in San Francisco but no longer exists). The exhibition was curated by Sara Bates (Cherokee) and Kathleen Ash-Milby (Navajo).
I think Larry McNeil’s photograph has had longstanding appeal for three reasons: irony/humor, nostalgia, and as a critique of authenticity and commercial authority. The language of tourism centered around Indians in the Southwest has largely disappeared except in old run-down roadside sites such as this one. The assertion that there are “Real Indians” implies that there must also be un-real Indians and locates the authority for knowing the difference squarely in advertising and popular magazines like LIFE Magazine and LOOK Magazine, rather than with any kind of tribal authority.
The text on the sign implies a bustling local economy, cultural wealth, and prosperity. But the local economy has clearly declined, and the only “Real Indian” in sight is the artist who is just passing through. Larry McNeil had this to say about it,
“This is a self-portrait made in December of 1977 when I was still going to Brooks Institute of Photography . . . I came across this scene near Santo Domingo Pueblo, zoomed past it and did a double take of the blurred building that I saw in the corner of my eye. I thought to myself, ‘Did I see what I thought I saw?’ and did a U-turn. The scene was so bad that it was good. After seeing it clearly, my only thought was, ‘Hey, I’m a real Indian . . .'”(from the Indian Humor Catalogue, but also available on the old website for the exhibition: http://www.nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/indian_humor/exhibit/26.htm)
McNeil specifically identifies this photograph as a self-portrait, which shifts the emphasis from the place and onto the person. He stands with arms crossed, leaning against a beat-up car. The closed posture implies skepticism. The lean implies leisure – the opposite of the bustling terms “visit – watch – trade” from the signage.I heard that a few other Native artists out there have used this old trading post site and McNeil’s photo as a jumping off point for their own work. I’d love to include images of them in a photo essay here on Not Artomatic. If you know of or have an image to share, post a comment or e-mail me at evanslaramarie at gmail.com.
Larry McNeil, Real Indians, Copyright Larry McNeil, 2010, All Rights Reserved. This is how the image was published in the "Indian Humor" catalogue.
UPDATE See Larry McNeil’s response below in the COMMENTS section.
Larry McNeil, Real Indians, Copyright Larry McNeil, 2010, All Rights Reserved This is the original B&W Photo as it was intended.