What is most striking about Tom Jones’s photographs are the relaxed and very heart-warming pictures of the Ho Chunk people. In a recent interview, Tom Jones said that he was selective about what pictures he took. He wanted to show the lightness and sense of humor that is an integral part of his community, his tribe, the Ho Chunk Nation.
The Ho Chunk, historically, have occupied much of Wisconsin, from Green Bay down to northern Illinois. They have also been relocated seven times under the Indian Relocation Act of 1830, mainly to Nebraska, Minnesota, and South Dakota, but many have returned to Wisconsin.
The Ho Chunk People
With an ability to capture worlds of meaning in a single photograph, Tom Jones, in his work The Ho Chunk People, sets his tribe in the contemporary while being ever- conscious of the past.
What lacks in previous Native American photography, Jones set out to mend. “What’s most important to the Ho Chunk is the community and the family. This is something that hasn’t often been represented in photographs taken of Native Americans,” he said.
Choosing to photograph in black and white, he recalls the early days of Native American portraiture. Jones wanted people not to see the last images of a dying way of life or Native Americans “romanticized” by being relegated to the past, but a people who are a part of a vibrant community who hold on to their traditions.
In his photographs, Jones plays on the relationship between the subject and viewer. The people are looking directly at you. The environment around them tells their story and who they are as a member of the Ho Chunk nation and as an individual.
The subjects reveal themselves in subtle ways. Family portraits hang from walls and every available counter space to show the importance of family. Pictures of a bear on a person’s shirt indicate what clan they belong to. Sunglasses on an elderly lady make her a mystery to us; she tells us who she is when we look at her surroundings.
His father worked for Kodak, so Jones grew up with cameras. Jones originally pursued painting and graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1988. Jones later took up photography as a medium to quickly express his ideas.
Jones’s foray into photographing his tribe came quite by accident. “I was in Wisconsin, planning on photographing some of the effigy mounds. It was raining that day, so I instead used the opportunity to take pictures of the tribal elders, many of whom have an extensive knowledge of Ho Chunk history and culture. I then realized this is something I need to be doing, to preserve our heritage and culture.”
Jones admits there are few Native American photographers. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, few Native Americans had access to cameras. Children were put into boarding schools and forced to give up their language; their religion was banned by the U.S. government.
The Ho Chunk were simply trying to survive. Attending higher education was out of the question for most, and cameras were a luxury few could afford. Thus, Native Americans had little means to record their own history.
In the Wisconsin Dells area, a major tourist attraction and part of the original homeland of the Ho Chunk Nation, Jones sets his sights on the absurdity, profundity, and manipulation of the popular “Indian” image forced upon the Ho Chunk by the tourist industry in his work, "Native" Commodity.
Jones exclaims, “We see headdresses, totem poles, tepees, pueblos, but nothing from our original Ho Chunk culture.”
Hollywood pop culture now represents Native Americans, and unfortunately many have adapted to it. Jones stated, “Hollywood is all that is represented, so we oftentimes use those images in representing ourselves.”
"Native" Commodity reveals the images of native peoples altered and stylized by the Wild West shows and pop culture at the turn of the 20th century. Much of that identity is hard to erase and has left a cultural void. Just about every aspect of the Ho Chunk culture has been misrepresented.
Along with other Native American artists, this is something hard to escape, and many artists feel a sense of duty to challenge that image in their work.
In the history of the Ho Chunk and other Native American tribes, there has been a struggle to maintain and protect their identity as well as to rectify what has been taken from them for over five centuries.
Jones’s photography stands as an archival work reclaiming for future generations the Ho Chunk’s sovereign identity.
Tom Jones’s work has won numerous awards and has been exhibited in an expanding number of institutions, including the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. For more information on Tom Jones and his work, please visit www.tomjoneshochunk.com.