Our Chiefs and Elders
Words and Photographs of Native Leaders
In Our Chiefs and Elders, David Neel presents us with a magnificent series of images of Native chiefs and elders which sharply contrasts with earlier depictions of Natives as “noble savages” or representatives of a “vanishing race.” Neel’s photographs of, and conversations with, his own people introduce us to individuals who know who they are and whose comments on the present, coupled with their perspectives from the past, reveal a people with a rich and unique heritage.
Neel has chosen to show many of his subjects in paired images, both in traditional dress, holding the symbols to which they are entitled by hereditary right, as well as in everyday clothing and surroundings. This demonstrates more effectively than any museum display the transforming power of the masks and ceremonial blankets. More important, it shows the people as they are – with their lives in two worlds, two cultures – and demonstrates that being Native is not a matter of appearance but rather a way of being.
Many of these individuals were born in bighouses and they reminisce about travelling in log canoes and living off the land. They talk about their experiences in residential schools, about the potlatch law, and they explain the roles of hereditary chiefs, chief councilors, and elders. But they also have much to say that is relevant to contemporary social, political, and ecological issues.
The commitment and enthusiasm of those who sat for this project are obvious. David Neel’s respect for the elders is evident, as is the warmth with which he is regarded by his subjects. And that is what makes this unique – it is a powerful statement of a surviving race taking its rightful place in contemporary society.
- 1993, Winner - Alcuin Citation for excellence in book design in Canada, Alcuin Society
Our Chiefs and Elders is a fine, gentle book with the power to change our perceptions. David Neel has a professional photographic background, tuned to depicting the persona of bank presidents and judges. Now, with humility and respect, he has opened his lens to the chiefs and elders of the west coast, showing the deep concerns and robust human energy of people who have much to share. This book changes perceptions and presents us with living, breathing role models – at a time when moral example is sorely needed. Read it, and be changed.
This is a book in which photos and words play off one another to create a fascinating and powerful portrait of 40 B.C. chiefs and elders.
...this book makes not only compelling reading, but also features some brilliant photos of those being interviewed. ... It is a set of stunning portraits, showing native people neither as ‘noble savages nor skid row drunks’ as Neel describes the most common views. A powerful book.
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