Ivy Vainio was a senior in high school in Duluth, Minnesota when she attended her first pow wow, with her mother, a member of the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe. “I remember it very well,” she says. “In the summer of 1986, she brought me to the Nimiiwin Pow Wow when they had it down at Bayfront Park. I remember seeing all the campers, some tipis, and all of the dancers in their colorful regalia. I was in awe knowing that this was part of my culture.”
That senior year in high school brought another first for Ivy—a chance to use a camera. “We were so poor that we didn’t have a camera, ever,” Vainio recalls. “The one time I experienced working with cameras was when I took a photography class. We each made a shoebox camera and made a photograph with it. That was pretty cool. I was fascinated by developing the film in the darkroom, but never really thought I’d want to do this as a hobby or a career.”
Both of those experiences planted seeds that only came into full bloom more than a quarter-century later with Vainio’s first solo exhibit, which has 16 of her photographs of pow wow dancers. Naamijig: Honoring Our Traditions opened this fall, and will be on display at the Gimaajii Mino Bimaadiziyaan building in Duluth run by the American Indian Community Housing Organization until December 31.
Vainio took up photography just four years ago, when her husband bought her a Canon Rebel camera from a pawnshop. Since then she has used her camera frequently to record cultural activities in the region—Native and other cultures. “When I take photographs of cultural events, be it American Indian pow wows, African American celebrations or Hmong New Year events, I feel that I am helping to document these events and help to preserve the culture.”
On the pow wow trail, though, Vainio found a subject that spoke to her heart. She not only made photographs, she made friends. “There’s something special about pow wows. I’ve gotten to know a lot of the dancers.… It’s like I’ve become part of their family and they’ve become part of my family.”
Many of the dancers featured in the 16 photographs on display attended the opening reception, and two of them—George Earth, an elder from the White Earth Band of Ojibwe who also did a pipe ceremony at the event, and T’ea Drift, a young teen from the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe—spoke.
Vainio says it was critical for her to give the dancers a chance to speak at her opening. Not only does she give the names of each dancer in the photos—a rarity for pow wow photography—but she also gives them voices, inviting each to explain why they dance. The quotations posted beside the images make the exhibit more meaningful and, she believes, more educational and respectful. “I wanted to educate non-Indian people. Having the narrative alongside the photo—and with the dancer—it brings much more cultural understanding between Indians and non-Indians. I learned more about them, more about the culture.”
Vainio says she does not want to make the rude mistakes she sees made by many who take photos of cultural regalia and activities, especially the historic photography that she says creates more stereotypes than understanding. “I’m not asking [the dancers] to put on fake feathers and pose.… I really feel that the dancers respect me. They know that I respect them.”
That celebration of culture was one reason Michelle LeBeau, interim director of Gimaajii Mino Bimaadiziyaan, asked Vainio to be the first exhibit in the gallery space of the newly opened operation, which serves as an American Indian Center that also features housing for homeless Native people. In another part of the building, a second exhibit of graffiti spray paint on canvas by artist Rocky Makes Room For Them opened October 20.
Bringing art into the building, which has temporary housing for up to 150 adults and children, is a way to add beauty and cultural pride, LeBeau says. “We thought it would be important to have art
brought to their space.”
Vainio’s goals for her exhibit matched those of the center, LeBeau explains: “Showcase her work, but also to have the dancers talk. She really wanted to honor the dancers.”
The dancers, too, said at the opening reception that they dance to honor others. Drift said, “The main reason I dance is for my family.”
For elder Earth, pow wows can be somewhat bittersweet. They bring back memories of a time when the Ojibwe language was frequently spoken, something he no longer hears. “When we lose something, it’s hard to find again,” Earth said. “These are things that we are beginning to lose ourselves.”
At the reception, Vainio says a friend gave her “the best compliment I could receive. ‘Ivy,’ he said, ‘when I looked at these photos, they made me want to dance.’ ”