Over the last 35 years, press photographer Michelle Vignes has made a close visual record of the American Indians’ struggle for self-determination and of their daily lives on the reservations. In the 1969-1972 period, Vignes witnessed the occupation of Alcatraz, the first attention-grabbing action by the American Indian Movement (established in 1968). In 1973 she was present during the ‘71 days’ of Wounded Knee. A selection of her black-and-white press photos are now being shown, for the first time in the Netherlands, as a complement to a concurrent exhibition at the Hague Museum of Photography: Sacred Legacy, composed of historical photographs by the American photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952).
This year it is precisely three decades since some 300 Indians occupied the little town of Wounded Knee in South Dakota (US). The name has a strong emotional resonance since it was here that, in 1890, the Sioux Indian chief Sitting Bull and several hundred members of his tribe were massacred by the federal army and police. This nineteenth-century Battle of Wounded Knee is generally regarded as the last major armed confrontation between the Indians and the whites in America. The dramatic ten-week occupation of Wounded Knee by supporters of the American Indian Movement in 1973 was an action designed to avenge their ancestors and as a militant protest against continuing tutelage by the American authorities. It was comparatively bloodless, with just one Indian fatality and two men wounded on the federal side. The event got the problems of the Indians back onto the US political agenda and led in subsequent decades – particularly during the Democratic Carter and Clinton presidencies – to some improvement in the legal rights of Native Americans. Vignes was born in France in 1926 but has lived and worked in San Francisco ever since 1965. In the 1950s she was a picture editor at the renowned Magnum Photos picture agency in Paris, where she had a close working relationship with Henri Cartier-Bresson. After emigrating to the US, she began taking photographs herself and evolved into a socially and politically committed press photographer with a keen eye for the problems of American minorities. This sense of personal involvement took her into the heart of the Indian community. Her photographs have been published in prestigious journals like Newsweek, Time, Libération and Der Spiegel. In 1999 Michelle Vignes was awarded a knighthood by the French Minister of Culture. The exhibition is accompanied by a French-language catalogue entitled Indiens d’Amérique, containing 75 photo reproductions in duotone and an introduction by leading Indian activist Dennis J. Banks. It is published by Editions Léo Scheer, Paris; ISBN 2-914172-74-5 (price € 39). A heliogravure entitled Dennis Banks, South Dakota 1974 will also be available in a limited edition of 100 (price € 180). The exhibition is being held in cooperation with Galerie 14-16 Verneuil, Paris.