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'Indigenizing Colonized Spaces,' one photograph at a time
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'Indigenizing Colonized Spaces,' one photograph at a time

From the On Indigenous Peoples' Day, get to know a few of the artists from Montana's tribes series
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Adam Sings in the Timber has dedicated his time and his camera lens to documenting Indigenous culture and ways of life. He has been working for several years in urban landscapes on a portraiture series, “Indigenizing Colonized Spaces,” featuring descendants of the first people to live on the continent.

“I wanted to photograph the original inhabitants of the land,” said Sings in the Timber, a photojournalist and enrolled member of the Apsáalooke Nation. He launched the project in 2018 with three portraits of Indigenous women wearing traditional regalia in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Billings.

“I only planned to do three portraits. It resonated so well with everyone else that I just wanted to do it more,” he said.

The series started as a commission for Seattle’s King Street Station, where the city opened a cultural center to increase opportunities for artists of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to show their work. The inaugural exhibit featured work by Indigenous artists from around the country.

“I wanted to challenge myself with something that I didn’t do at the time … I was a photojournalist. I never really thought about portraits.”

Since that initial commission, Sings in the Timber has made portraits across the U.S. in locations including Providence, New York City, Chicago, Milwaukee, Billings, Bozeman, Butte, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Seattle.

Sings in the Timber travels frequently, and the photo project travels with him. “I get to explore and make photos and meet new Indigenous people, which feeds my soul.”

He seeks out Indigenous collaborators when he travels. “It’s become wherever I am and whatever tribal people happen to be in the area,” he said. “I love to photograph original inhabitants of the land, but that’s not always possible if they left or moved out, or there’s no one around anymore.”

Indigenizing Colonized Spaces

Adam Sings In The Timber takes photos with Karaya Pease while working on his “Indigenizing Colonized Spaces” project Thursday, August 5, 2021 in downtown Billings.

As the Crow flies

Sings in the Timber was born in Billings and lived for a time on the Crow Indian Reservation. His life and work has taken him from Montana to the Midwest, and he’s resided on both coasts.

“I wanted more,” said Sings in the Timber. “I wanted to be full of places, full of art, music ...” At age 42, he now lives in California with his partner Elizabeth Hoover, a professor of environmental sciences and policy management at the University of California, Berkeley.

Sings in the Timber’s first foray into photography was at Indian Community School in Milwaukee. He was working as a teaching assistant for the private school when he picked up an old Sony digital camera. The first scenes he would photograph were of the students.

Sings in the Timber would go on to study photojournalism at the University of Montana and is a graduate of the Freedom Forum's American Indian Journalism Institute.

While interning at The Billings Gazette in the mid-2000s, he thought he’d found his calling.

Indigenizing Colonized Spaces

Adam Sings In The Timber adjusts his light while he works with Karaya Pease on his “Indigenizing Colonized Spaces” project Thursday, August 5, 2021 in downtown Billings.

"I just wanted to be a daily photographer at a newspaper. At the time, I was not thinking of being an Indigenous photographer or Indigenous photojournalist,” he said.

Sings in the Timber was driven to take photos and loved the churn of daily newspaper. “It was so fun to go get those stories and those photos and see them in the paper the next day and to always be on the go … that was the best.”

But the industry was changing, and during the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009, newspapers began a constriction and staff reduction that continues today.

Sings in the Timber took a break from the workforce to be a stay-at-home dad for nine years with his two children, who reside in Missoula. In 2015, he moved to Chicago and starting taking photos again as a freelance photojournalist.

“My drive is to document who we are as Crow people now for future generations,” he said. “I want my grandkids and great-great-great grandkids to see the work we produce and know that this is who we are in this moment. Hopefully in 200 years, our culture and traditions won’t have changed so much.”

Indigenizing Colonized Spaces

One of the finished portraits of Karaya Pease, taken by Adam Sings in the Timber for his project "Indigenizing Colonized Spaces."

Sparking conversation

About a year into the project, Sings in the Timber came across the phrase “indigenizing colonized spaces.” It resonated with him and felt more inclusive, he said, as opposed the language about decolonization.

“Decolonization is fine; there is nothing wrong with it, but it gives the impression that there is something wrong with you as an Indigenous person that I want to rid myself of. I want to better myself. I want to add something to myself. I want to expand who I am and expand the work. It felt more inclusive to use the word ‘indigenize.’”

Sings in the Timber's work and the work of his peers has heightened awareness of Indigenous claims to land and is sparking more conversations and attention to land reclamation and preservation efforts.

“A lot of the work I try to do is education. We are still here, but this land was stolen from us. It was sometimes bought, but not in an honest way.”

Sings in the Timber points to the ways of life he was taught that encourage living harmoniously with land. “That’s what ‘land back’ is for me," he said. "Not for others to leave, but to listen to us and let us do our part. Start listening to Indigenous people first about how to take care of the land … Listen to how we care for it and give us stewardship.”

Indigenizing Colonized Spaces

Adam Sings In The Timber works with Karaya Pease on his “Indigenizing Colonized Spaces” project Thursday, August 5, 2021 in downtown Billings.

Influences and collaborators 

Sings in the Timber was influenced by works of other Indigenous photographers, including Zig Jackson’s contemporary portraits of himself in a headdress in urban spaces or riding a bus and his series “Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian,” as well as well as the portraits of Native families taken by Maggie Steber.

In turn, Sings in the Timber’s work has inspired others to create their own portraits. Using #indigenizingcolonizedspaces, the work has gained international traction.

“It has inspired other people to photograph themselves, or have someone photograph them in the same spirit of the project, which is cool. I am not trying to own it; it’s just what I do.”

Sings in the Timber’s images, which he often shares on social media, have been used without his permission over the years, even made into T-shirts that were sold online, causing him to watermark the finished images to cut down on theft.

“It feels like social media is a necessary evil at a moment. A lot of Native people see the work and are inspired an empowered by it.”

Sings in the Timber describes his photo subjects as "collaborators" and works with them to find locations and poses.

“I’ve gotten better at helping someone find their pose. As a journalist, I don’t want to tell someone how to pose, because that’s not accurate to who they are as a person.”

Indigenizing Colonized Spaces

Karaya Pease poses for Adam Sings In The Timber while they work on his “Indigenizing Colonized Spaces” project Aug. 5, 2021 in downtown Billings.

When visiting family in Billings and in Crow Agency this summer, Sings in the Timber collaborated with Karaya Pease for a portrait session on the lawn outside the Yellowstone County Courthouse. 

"I feel a sense of pride that our culture still lives on to this day," said Pease while standing on the courthouse lawn. She is a member of the Lakota, Gros Venture, and Crow tribes. "I feel blessed to be here to represent my Native American culture, my Crow culture, and my Indigenous background. It feels really good."

Pease donned a 30-year-old elk tooth dress, describing the garment as a way to "show off a little bit." 

"Back in the old days, the more elk teeth you had on your dress, the better hunter your husband was. That meant you were rich and abundant. As Crow women, we honor our husbands like that." 

Pease also wore beaded medallions made by a late friend and finished by her mother. Circular and featuring green turtles, the adornments highlight her Lakota heritage, she described. "The turtles, they mean good luck, and they have a deep meaning to me." 

'This person has a name'

Sings in the Timber serves as a documentarian for his tribe, which has been chronicled by nonnative people for generations.

“I want to be able to tell our stories and have governance of our own narrative. I think it’s only right that the people tell our stories and no longer rely on nonnatives and non-Crows to have that space.”

Many aspects of the Apsáalooke tribe’s history has been told by outsiders, and their sacred objects, beadwork, regalia, cradleboards, and clothing sit in museum displays or in basement archives. Fieldsmen and collectors were sent West in the late 1800s and early 1900s by museums like the Smithsonian and Chicago’s Field Museum to collect artifacts, and items were taken or purchased from tribal members, often through exploitative means.

Descriptions that accompanied the objects often lacked context and did not include the family provenance or significance of the items to the tribal members or the oral narratives that often accompanied sacred objects. Picture captions would often not identify the Native families, but just describe the subjects en mass.

“Whenever I photograph an Indigenous person, I want to capture their personal humanity as best as I can. I am not portraying ‘Indian woman’ or ‘Indian child’ or ‘Indian man,’ I am photographing a human. That is what drives me to make the best photograph I can.”

Through the lens, Sings in the Timber is focused less on what the subject is wearing, but rather on photographing the person, he said.

“This person has a name. They come from a family, and I want that to be documented and remembered.”

The project is also inspired in part by the women in his life, and Sings in the Timber credits those women with the person he is today. “As Indigenous people, the women really are the backbone of our society,” he said. “They have held us together from the transition of our life before colonialism to the reservation life to now.”

As an homage to Indigenous women, the project is also helping uplift the photo's subjects. “A lot of times, they give me feedback of how it made them feel strong and empowered and uplifted them in a way they didn’t expect.”

For Sings in the Timber, his work isn’t about external validation from outsiders, but how his work resonates within his own community. “It’s not the ‘likes’ or the comments, but the person I photographed and how it makes them feel, which has become one of the biggest motivators.”

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