‘Faces from the Land’ depicts powwow dancers and regalia


Painted black lips and a bright yellow jaw sit below a set of dark, piercing eyes. The beautiful array of a feathered headdress, buckskin fringes and a fan of feathers ceases to distract the viewer as the dark eyes pull them directly in. They show a strength and confidence, and they portray a pride in tradition and heritage that is honored at the powwows.

Travis Ike, of the Omaha Tribe, wearing his Native regalia is one of many powwow participants photographed by Ben Marra.

Ben and his wife, Linda Marra, of Seattle, Wash., have followed Native American powwows for 20 years. Their traveling documentary photo exhibit, Faces from the Land, features Ben’s portrait photography and personal statements from each of his subjects.

The Faces from the Land exhibit was at the Main Library in downtown Salt Lake City from Sept. 20 to Nov. 15, 2008. Ann Morris, a librarian there, estimated that about 30 people a day walked through the exhibit, the majority of those being adults.

The Marras attended their first powwow in 1988 when Ben was given an assignment to take a color photograph depicting the theme, “Celebrate Washington State.” Recently returned from photographing people in Nepal, Ben immediately discarded all the played-out Washington icons and came up with the idea of photographing Native Americans from the Northwest.

“At my first powwow, I saw beautiful imagery right here in our country,” Ben said. He wanted to photograph and share it.

After the photo assignment, the Marras continued to attend powwows across the United States and Canada, and the photography grew into a larger project for them.

“We did this on the side for fun, to take off for the weekends, but you keep learning of more powwows and seeing people you know,” Linda said.

The Marras became more dedicated to their photography project when they decided to use the images to strengthen or spark an interest in the Native American community. On their Web site, they write their hopes that the photos can teach people about the importance of tradition and family, and about beliefs associated with powwows, dances and native regalia. 

Due to a lack of education about Native Americans in school, neither of them knew much in the beginning and had no idea what to expect at a powwow.

Linda was surprised at how welcome they were. The Marras made sure to keep their word and treat everyone well so they weren’t seen as “ugly, white people.” Relationships have been very important to their success.

“This whole project has been based on relationships and we’ve been careful to form and nurture those relationships, and honor those promises made,” Linda said.

Their relationships with powwow dancers are also based on cultural respect. For example, if an elder asks individuals to dance, they have to. It is respectful and an honor for the invitation to be given and accepted. Linda and Ben have been asked to dance before and obliged, even though Linda said she is self-conscious and doesn’t dance. It wasn’t a real dance, Ben said. It was more of a two-step while circling around, something that anyone can pick up after a minute.

The Marras used to search for their subjects at the powwows. They would look for someone with a certain presence and a unique way of carrying themselves.

These days, though, powwow dancers seek them out and ask for their photo to be taken. The dancers come between songs and usually only have five or 10 minutes where Ben can create a few photographs.

“We make [the process] fast for them because they are here to be dancing,” Ben said. Sometimes during a shoot, someone will run in and tell the dancer that his song is next. They will run out, regardless of if Ben is done.

Linda meets the dancers before the shoot to take down their name and tribal affiliation. Then Ben tries to make them feel comfortable despite what setting they may be using. Whether it’s a school hallway or a portable trailer, they try to always create privacy so that it is just Ben and the dancer.

The dancer stands in front of the same brown cloth that the Marras have had since the beginning of the project. The lighting is also kept similar. This helps to keep the photos consistent with one another, so that a photo from 10 years go can be placed right alongside a photo from today.

Ben uses a color slide film to get the most vibrant colors. His color portraits are a unique and signature work. Few photographers have such an extensive portfolio of portraits. Ben’s color portraits have a different feel to them, especially when compared to the sepia-toned Native American images made by Edward S. Curtis in the late 1800s and early 1900s, said Morris, the Salt Lake City librarian.

Some of Curtis’ photographs appeared on a television alongside the exhibit. Native Americans have rarely been shown in traditional attire in color. Most of the historical pictures are black and white or sepia, which don’t allow for the full effect of their regalia to be seen.

Ben also photographs the dancing at powwows. He manages to get close up and has a knack for getting great action shots since he is familiar with the music.

“He’s been doing it for so long that he recognizes the dances and knows when they’re up in the air or when the last beat of the song is,” Linda said.

Every dancer who is photographed by Ben receives a copy, which is usually proudly displayed in their homes, Linda said.

The Marras have a book coming out in April 2009 called “Faces from the Land: 20 Years of Powwow Tradition.” The book will feature 150 of the best color portraits over their 20 years of following the powwows. A personal narrative will accompany each of the photos.

A Native American leader


Robert Jarvik, inventor of the first artificial heart, once said, “Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them.” Cal Nez is a leader to many Native Americans because of his vision and lack of fear.

Nez is the owner of Cal Nez Design in Salt Lake City. He is an accomplished graphic designer and has done work for the Office of the President of the United States – National Republican Party, Kodak, AT&T, the Navajo Nation Fair and many more clients. Although his business is thriving, it is his passion for his Native American culture that has helped sculpt his business into what it is today. Nez has dedicated himself to helping bridge the gap between cultures.

Native Americans are able to look up to Nez because he has worked so hard to get to where he is today, without forgetting where he came from. He was born for the Tanaszanii Clan and is originally from Tocito, N.M.

He was raised by his grandparents and to this day does not know why his parents left him. He spoke only Navajo with his grandparents and learned English when he entered the Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School in nearby Sanostee at age 5. His boarding school experience was, in his words, “A demon from the past.” Students of this boarding school were not allowed to speak Navajo and were punished for participating in some Native American activities. They were also punished for playing like children, Nez said.

As a teenager, Nez participated in the Indian Placement Program by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He left the reservation to go to South High School in Salt Lake City after his grandmother convinced him that it would be best for him. He remembers his grandmother telling him she had nothing more to give him to help better his life. So, he left and went to high school where he began to discover and build on his art and design talents.

After high school and some college courses, Nez went to work for Smith and Clarkson Design. After several years working there, Nez realized they did not have the same vision and direction that he did. So, in November 1986 he quit his job to start his own graphic design company.

At this time Nez was married with a child on the way and was very worried about providing for his family. Nez gathered his portfolio, packed a bag and drove to New Mexico to meet with Peter MacDonald, then the president of the Navajo Nation. He left the interview with two jobs. Both of them included contracts paying him more than he was making with Smith and Clarkson Design. Cal Nez Design has now been in business for more than 20 years.

Knowing from his own experiences what many Native Americans go through, he understands better now how to help others. In April 2008, Nez founded the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce. According to its mission statement, it aims “to promote the economic development of Utah Native American-owned or serving businesses and organizations and those who appreciate diversity in commerce, and to also promote growth of the Utah Native American business enterprises and make them a powerful economic force.” Nez was named president of the Chamber of Commerce.

Nez is a strong leader, but he also does what he can to strengthen his culture by participating in the Native American Celebration in the Park. Nez believes that Native Americans still have a lot to fulfill as human beings. “We are not history,” he said, “we are people, our drums and song are still going on.”

Campus group encourages Native Americans, Hispanics in science


Despite efforts to encourage minority students to pursue degrees in the sciences, such as chemistry, physics or biology degrees, enrollment numbers at the University of Utah are low.

Native American and Hispanic students comprise less than half a percent of all 21,566 undergraduate students from fall 2008, according to enrollment records from the Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis. The majority are enrolled in the College of Humanities or Nursing. Only 6 percent are enrollment in the College of Science.

“Nationally, one of the fields of study under-represented is sciences,” said Octavio Villalpando, associate vice president for the Office of Diversity at the U “We want to make sure the University of Utah can attract many more students of color to the programs, even by bringing students from across the country.”

Villalpando helped organize a national conference for the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) in October 2008 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The conference brought students interested in science degrees from all around the world to the U.

The Utah student chapter for SACNAS doesn’t think the U is doing enough to encourage students.

Doug Rodriguez, a physics graduate student and secretary of the Utah chapter, said the low enrollment numbers are frustrating but not surprising.

“Science has always had low interest, but even when students sign up for a degree they often drop out,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez and SACNAS Utah Chapter President Mauricio Rascon have plans to improve those numbers.

By December, the chapter will begin to visit elementary, junior and high schools in the Salt Lake Valley to talk to students and encourage them to continue to higher education and major in science-related degrees.

“A lot of students ask: What am I going to do with a physics degree?” Rascon said.  “Most people think they can just teach. They don’t know about all the opportunities available for medical physics or other career paths.”

Rodriguez said the need is especially great among Native American students. According to the Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis 2008 enrollment records, of the 150 Native American students enrolled at the University of Utah, only 12 are in the College of Science.

To combat these low numbers, College of Science Dean Pierre Sokolsky recently created a committee to help retain minority students to study biology, chemistry and physics degrees.

Rodriquez said that for every science degree, about 70 percent of all students listed as caucasian who enroll complete their degree, but only 10 percent of all Native American and Hispanic student graduates with a science degree.

“We’re going to hold mentoring sessions and have juniors, seniors and graduate students influence the newer freshmen [and] sophomores, and hopefully convince them to go into graduate school and bump these numbers up,” Rodriguez said.

The older students can also help them with difficult classes and subjects, he said.

Rascon said he remembers the effort it took to work through difficult classes, especially upper-level math classes. He said there were times he considered switching majors.

“When you go into the sciences, it’s like learning a whole new language,” Rascon said. “And if you don’t schedule your classes right, you can get extremely overwhelmed.”

Moises Terrazas, a former president of the student group, said teachers make a big difference in helping a student stay motivated.

“The people that gave me the motivation to continue was my family and good mentors in the science department,” he said.

Villalpando said the U is an excellent place for students of color to study sciences. He said many diverse students are already interested in studying with Mario Capecchi, who won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology.

“Capecchi is a great example of a student facing adversity and trial, and making revolutionary discoveries in science,” Villalpando said.

Rodriguez said some students struggle to pay for school and become discouraged.

The Utah SACNAS chapter tries to combat financial problems by offering about 10 scholarships every year to high schools students who will study at the U. The scholarships range from full tuition to half tuition for a year.

Rodriguez said many students don’t know that graduate schools often offer to pay students’ tuition.

Yet, the Utah SACNAS chapter has made strides over the past few years to encourage Native American and Hispanic students at the U to enroll in the College of Science and involve themselves in activities on campus.

Derek Lokni, a chemistry student and the U who is Navajo, said he joined SACNAS to meet other students and take part in activities on campus. He said more students should be interested in the group, but many don’t know it exists.

“Members of the (chapter) have helped me stay in chemistry,” Lokni said. “And it’s a lot of fun. We talk about some of the goals we have after graduation and what we like about chemistry, physics, biology or anything else. It’s there for you.”

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