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'Smiling Indians' Depicts A Lighter Side Of Native Americans

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'Smiling Indians' Depicts A Lighter Side Of Native Americans

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'Smiling Indians' Depicts A Lighter Side Of Native Americans

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In the early 1900s, photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis traveled around the country photographing North American Indians from 80 tribes. Those 2,000-or-so sepia-toned images show Native Americans in tribal dress: stoic, facing the camera straight on and mostly all not smiling.

Well now, a century later, comes a video in response to Curtis's photos. It's titled "Smiling Indians," and it's exactly that, four minutes of video of Native Americans, young and old, with smiles ranging from a self-conscious grin to a full-on belly laugh.

It was co-created by Ryan Red Corn. He's an Osage Indian from Oklahoma, and he joins me from Tulsa. Welcome to the program, Ryan.

Mr. RYAN RED CORN (Co-creator, "Smiling Indians): Well, thank you for having me.

BLOCK: You have dedicated this video to the photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis. Did you mean that dedication sincerely? Was your tongue in your cheek there?

Mr. RED CORN: Yes, it would be fair to say it was tongue and/or cheek.

BLOCK: Well, why is that? What's your problem with those images from Edward Curtis?

Mr. RED CORN: Basically, they permeate every history book, you know, from the time that you enter grade school to even the documentaries that are shown on TV now. It becomes the dominant image that people - I mean, they imagine that Indians don't ever smile.

BLOCK: You know, it's interesting because when I look at those old photographs, I see images that seem to me very dignified, very prideful, unsmiling, yes, but most photographs from the early 1900s, people would not be smiling. It was a serious business to have your picture taken.

Mr. RED CORN: It's true, but unfortunately, that was kind of the end of the era of when people were taking pictures of Natives. Even if you just Google Native American or Indian, you'll still come up with a ridiculous, lopsided inventory of what's out there.

BLOCK: There are babies smiling in this video. There are a few times when there's somebody who starts out looking very serious and then breaks into a grin. And what were you telling people when you trying to get them to smile or explaining what you were doing here?

Mr. RED CORN: I just told them I was shooting a video of smiling Indians.

BLOCK: And it worked?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RED CORN: It pretty much works. I mean, it's like the prevalence of humor in Indian country is, it's just right there on the surface. All the Indians I know are smiling Indians.

BLOCK: You have this message at the very end of your video. This message pops up: If you remember nothing else about me, remember that I smiled.

Mr. RED CORN: When I was editing the video, there were some gunshots or something that was going off across the street. And I thought: Man, when we edit the video, we just - your face hurts so much from just smiling from looking at all these images.

And I thought: Man, this would be a real poetic way to go out if I'm sitting here working on this video, and a stray bullet comes in and takes me out.

So I had this idea that if that happened, I was just going to type on my cell phone that if you remember nothing else about me, just remember that I smiled. And we decided to put it at the end of the video. It seemed fitting. It spoke to the heart of, you know, what we were trying to have people walk away from.

BLOCK: Well, Ryan Red Corn, thanks for talking to us about it.

Mr. RED CORN: Well, I appreciate it.

BLOCK: Ryan Red Corn is the co-creator of the video "Smiling Indians." You can watch that video, and see photographs by Edward Sheriff Curtis, at npr.org.

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