BISMARCK — The last time U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) was in North Dakota was in 2016, when she supported the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
On Sunday, June 23, she flew back to get her portrait taken by photographer Shane Balkowitsch.
Balkowitsch is on a mission to capture 1,000 portraits of Native Americans using a 19th-century method known as the wet plate, and Sunday, he added Haaland to the growing number of pictures as he celebrated the launch of his book of photos, called “Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective,” at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck.
Balkowitsch first contacted Haaland for a portrait when she was sworn into office in January as one of the first two Native American women in Congress. And when the timing was finally right on Sunday, she sat for the photo, wearing her traditional clothing, including a 100-year-old woven belt that belonged to her grandfather, a black dress and jewelry made out of silver dollars.
“When this project is completed, these portraits will tell a story of 1,000 Native voices that depict immense Indigenous strength and survival throughout American history," Haaland said in a speech at the event, "because we are still here and still moving forward despite the hurdles."
Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna Tribe, was a keynote speaker along with North Dakota Rep. Ruth Buffalo (D-Fargo), South Dakota Rep. Tamara St. John (R-Sisseton), and Sitting Bull’s great grandson Ernie LaPointe.
Buffalo, in her speech, said the book is “a step in the right direction to promote healing among us.”
LaPointe was the first person Balkowitsch photographed on Sept. 6, 2014, and his portrait is on the cover of the book.
“One day, Shane is going to sit among the greats because he’s telling the story of Natives through pictures,” LaPointe said.
Balkowitsch said LaPointe’s portrait was the launching pad for the rest of the book, which he said was built from “trust, collaboration and friendship.” Balkowitsch is donating each wet plate portrait to the state’s historical society and is giving the money made from book sales to the American Indian College Fund.
Following the keynote speakers, Balkowitsch signed dozens of books inside the museum. And during the signing, indigenous dancers performed ceremonial dances, including the circle of life and the double beat.
Allan Demaray Jr. of the MHA Nation emceed the event and said Balkowitsch captured the beauty of Native Americans’ lives for generations to come.
“This young man stood up and became a warrior in his lifetime because he cared,” he said.
Haaland said Native Americans are too often portrayed as “extinct,” but Balkowitsch’s project will raise the visibility of indigenous people and cultures.
“The wet plate portrait process is a special medium of the past that has been brought into the modern era to tell a modern story — a story that Native American people are no longer frozen in time,” she said.