Champions of Change in Minnesota: Jaida Grey Eagle

The photographer and documentarian works to highlight underrepresented cultural narratives
Jaida Grey Eagle - Photographer
Jaida Grey Eagle – Photographer

Provided

Jaida Grey Eagle (Ogala Lakota) is a Report for America corps member placed at Sahan Journal, a news site covering Minnesota immigrant communities. Born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, she witnessed journalists come to the area and create “poverty porn” reports, both failing to see the beauty locals experienced and failing to trace back to the effects of colonialism. “I wanted to do photojournalism because I’m interested in telling the truth and not upholding white supremacy through my lens,” she says. She later grew up in Red Wing and is now based in the Twin Cities.

This past summer, Grey Eagle documented the perspectives of immigrant business people along Lake Street in Minneapolis amid the civil unrest. “That was a harrowing experience to hear what had happened,” she says. “Just their strength and resilience.” Additionally, she co-produced the recent Sisters Rising documentary about Native American women combating personal and systemic injustices, and contributed to Minnesota Public Radio’s ChangeMakers series for National Native American Heritage Month. Formerly a curatorial fellow at Mia, she is currently researching historical Indigenous photographers for a potential exhibition there.

How did you get into photojournalism?

I’ve been obsessed with photography since I was a kid. People always ask me, “When did you become a photographer?” And my answer is, “I don’t really know.” I was always taking my parents’ film cameras, taking their Polaroids, and just shooting entire rolls in one day. Being from the community that I’m from, out in South Dakota in Pine Ridge, there’s a lot of media coverage out there. There’s a lot of parachuters who come in and try to tell our stories. When I was a teenager, there was a photographer [for a national publication] out there who was publishing a lot of “poverty porn” essays about my community. It is one of the poorest communities in this nation, but that’s an intention of colonialism. He really failed to tell that story.

It was so interesting to see the media’s coverage of my home community as this really scary, dire, impoverished place. Whereas, whenever I would visit, it was really beautiful. There was a lot of connection with the land and animals. You hear a language that’s been on this land since time in memoriam. Seeing these two different worlds represented was a really strange experience for a child. I saw the ceremony life and being there with my family and this “poverty porn.” Somewhere in the middle is where the truth is. That’s the story I’m pursuing with my lens. I got into wanting to do photojournalism because I’m interested in telling the truth, and not upholding white supremacy through my lens.

What has the experience been like working for Sahan Journal?

I’ve done fine art photography and documentary work, but I very rarely have had the opportunity to do photojournalism. They are teaching me how to get involved in communities outside of my own and report on them in a really caring and nuanced way, the way I would report on my own community. What we want readers to take away at Sahan is that these really dynamic and nuanced stories that we keep publishing that are done in collaboration. I’m so proud of it every week.

Which stories have stuck with you?

I’ve worked on a few of my own essays, and both left profound impacts on me. One was the Oromo protesters story where I sat down with youth protesting the killing of Hachalu Hundessa in Ethiopia and raising awareness for the human rights violations there. We were out and covering a rally for Isak Aden, a young Somali man who was killed by the Eagan Police. It was like 99 degrees. Another photographer came up to me and said, “The Oromo people have shut down I-94 in St. Paul.” The writer and I ran back to my car. I dropped her off because she was on the verge of heat exhaustion. I was too, but there was a story. Then I ran up to I-94, photographed them shutting it down, and all through St. Paul. The immigrant population has not had much media coverage, nor nuanced media coverage in the Twin Cities. Meeting with them and hearing about their life experience was really profound.

The other one was the Lake Street story when I interviewed and photographed immigrant business owners after what had happened during the civil unrest. One of them stayed at their business for three days to protect it. That dedication to keeping their businesses open and moving and going throughout all of that, it was incredible. Everybody had a different perspective. Trump had come to town and had invited immigrant business owners speak with him. I was like, “I don’t know if this is a really bad thing that my story is going up today or a really good thing.”

Who are the mentors that have inspired your pursuits?

Two of my main mentors in life: Ben Brody is the director of photography at the GroundTruth program and runs the photography program at Report for America. He and my mentor on the ground here, Nina Robinson, are two of the people who I can go to, and they will help me fix any problem. They’re two incredible giants in my life.

What else inspires you?

The history of photography. Prior to coming on to the Sahan Journal I was the curatorial fellow at the Mia. When I found out they only have and hold three images by Native photographers in their entire collection, it really upset me as a young photographer. I was like, “How am I supposed to dream big if this is my biggest dream?” I researched Indigenous photographers throughout time and place and I found that there had never been a comprehensive publication or show done on Indigenous photographers, in general. Now I’m researching historical Indigenous photographers for a potential exhibition at the Mia.

What did you find in your research?

People don’t know that Indigenous people have been practicing photography since the 1860s. (Photography was invented in 1839.) There are several photographers I’ve ultimately fallen in love with, and I really want to uplift their work. One of them is Benjamin Haldane, who opened up his first studio in 1889 in Alaska. He’s regarded as being the first professional Indigenous photographer. A scholar used Indigenous-based research methodologies to uplift his work to their community. His work is exceptionally beautiful. It’s so incredible and he’s funny.

A local missionary named William Duncan had taught Haldane photography. Both of them documented the Tsimshian people in Alaska, but showed two different truths. Duncan’s work showed “savage Indians” converting to Christianity, but Haldane’s photos made clear they were still practicing Tsimshian ceremonies with their regalia. An Alaskan scholar found his work. She and her husband, who are language keepers and dancers, do a ceremonial dance with Haldane’s photographs to honor him. There are so many amazing and different stories all throughout Canada and North America that we’ve been finding.

How did you get involved in the Sisters Rising project?

Patty Stonefish, who is covered in the documentary, invited me and my family out to lunch, and the filmmakers were there. Initially, their intention was helping her film self-defense videos for her social media. As they got more invested into this story about violence against Indigenous women, it grew into a documentary. They interviewed my mother because she’s done a lot of work on the Pine Ridge Reservation as a drug and alcohol counselor and emergency youth advisor, but her story didn’t make it into the film. When they filmed her, I was standing behind them watching and asking about cameras, audio setup, and interview questions. During filming, they stayed with me or my mother and we would go over footage. The directors were like, “Have you ever produced anything?” I said, “I don’t think so.” They said, “You act like a producer.” I originally came on as an associate producer just doing what I was already doing. I got more involved with the editing and we brought on a Native woman, Razelle Benally, to help us edit after post-production. My role moved to co-producer after that.

How much of a presence has Sisters Rising had in the Twin Cities?

Whenever we were looking for film festivals to submit to, the team asked if there were any in the Twin Cities. This was 2019. I said, “Not really.” Prior to everything that happened last summer I never really felt like this was my community or that it was very supportive of me as a person. I’ve watched a lot of my BIPOC friends submit films to festivals here and get ignored. I was like, “That’s probably going to happen to us.” We did have two screenings with MN350 with their crew because they have a MMIR (Missing and Murdered Relatives) campaign going. Since it’s COVID year, we have screenings online through various festivals that aren’t local or regional. We got to make it to our premiere at Big Sky Doc and then lockdown was two weeks later. Film is definitely in my future. I want to be able to do all of it and understand every aspect of film. I want to eventually direct and to be a director of photography on a film.

Learn more at Jaida Grey Eagle’s website.

Read about all 22 Champions of Change featured in our Jan/Feb 2021 issue.

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