Natalie Diaz writes in response to ‘Colville’, a photoessay by Fergus Thomas, published in Granta 154: I’ve Been Away for a While alongside an interview with one of its subjects, Duane Hall. Explore the images and read that interview here.
Among the Native men, among the rush of rivers and mountains of Omak and Okanogan on the Colville Reservation in Northern Washington, where Fergus Thomas traveled to photograph a bare back horse relay and a ‘suicide” race, the word for horse is kəwáp and the word for the race is q̓ʷq̓ʷuƛ̕aʔxnm. In the essay’s opening image, we arrive mid-story – a rider and his horse and a mountain. All shaped by night and simultaneously shaping the night, curves of silhouette joined in a wick of motion, blooming the blue flame of dusk. In this world we learn each is all, and of – man is of horse as horse is of man and each are of night – to be of is to be both autonomous and relational, one of many beings who make the whole.
The language of the camera and the deeds of its operators have always been problematic for Natives – words such as a darkened room, projection, reproduction, object, sensitivity to light, which resulted in postcard images implying Natives were void of the goodness such light reflected. A historical dislocation of the person from their developed likeness. When Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came to London in 1887, Queen Victoria met some of the Native performers and described them in her journal: ‘The cowboys are fine looking people, but the painted Indians, with their feathers and wild dress (very little of it) were rather alarming looking & they have cruel faces…” Thomas disallows the traditional power of the camera and its makers, decentering the eye from its throne of history and arbiter of what is worthy of reportage. This reorganization produces a haptic image in which everything has a skin, is touching and touched.
There can be no athletic spectacle without a spectator, a fan and on-looker, in this case, Thomas’ camera. We witness the transformation which occurs in any arena, through any wager of a body pushed to a limit – boys on horseback becoming the men and scars, mentors and lovers, losers or legends they will be forever known for. The Colville photo essay is a series of light and shadow that makes visible a constellation of reciprocal touch, who is beheld as well as who holds. Thomas also beckons us away from the arena, toward the accumulation of moments crucial to this coming of age story, a story rivaling any that ever occurred on an ancient hippodrome. However our hippodrome was not built by Constantine and is on a Native reservation – our champions are two Native jockeys, Duane and Louis.
Here behold warriors and the Native nations for whom they ride. Thomas frames them not as wild but as momentous – not in the past but alive, hundreds of years alive with hundreds of years yet to live. The subjects are never made objects – not the two roosters holding one another by the beak in a patch of mud mottled by sunlight, claws as orange as any fruit has been; not the two young lovers, one whose head is cradled as tenderly as if it was made of air by a set of callused hands we later see holding a hunting bow; not the rodeo horse light-wet and latherined with exhaustion; or the boy with arms spread in the wide expanse of a beheaded six point buck’s antlers, which might project as brutal except is in reality a children’s game.
But what can I assume to know of the intimacy shared among the men pictured, the brotherhood forged in a gauntlet of bare back horsemanship and the more dangerous challenge called the ‘suicide” race? Duane recounted first meeting Thomas, showing him their horses, introducing him to the team, and eventually bringing him back to the Colville Reservation. Though Thomas had come to photograph the races, Duane felt an obligation toward him, that he needed to ‘take care of, show around, and protect’ Thomas, who he refers to at that time as ‘young Fergus’.
We are defined by who we are in relation to, by who we touch and how we touch them. Beyond seeing a person in moments of privacy, or in the ecstasy of a hunt or competition, we see the intimate interactions that built a friendship. Though he holds the camera, Fergus Thomas is as much subject as the jockeys Duane and Louis. A young artist, across an ocean from his home, among strangers and strange customs, practicing the art of ‘seeing.” This ‘seeing” was also a becoming. As Duane said, reflecting on several years of working with Thomas, ‘We became brothers.”
The world judges warriors by the impressive dangers they face – warriors define one another by the respect they demonstrate and the practices to which they devote themselves. This essay includes images of the dangerous races – jockeys sprawled on the ground in failed efforts to mount a horse in relay, riders on horses without saddles, thundering down the almost vertical decline of the ‘suicide” race’s first challenge, manes and tails whipping a dark wind, a mount’s pink leg sleeves high in the air, glowing like slivers of late summer moon through the gold fog of dirt kicked to dust and stone beneath them. We are also shown the generous relationships these contests uphold and are equally upheld by – caretaking of family, land, animals, rivers, community. Thomas offers us a glimpse of the tenderness of brothers that can become the tenderness of men. A touch so many of us are reaching for.