The dark lyricism embedded into each of Donna Garcia’s images in this personal and powerful essay reflect the sensibilities of a poet. Connected through history to her own indigenous heritage, her work came about as a response to the genocide known as The Trail of Tears in the mid-1800s when approximately 60,000 Native Americans were forcefully relocated in an effort to steal their land. Four thousand Cherokees died on their march westward.
Unlike a documentary approach, Garcia goes inward and through stunning images of nature and self creates a portal into a time of grievous pain and injustice. As our depraved history is revisited it is all the more powerful as current events—our treatment of immigrants, and indeed the fact we are still going to court in attempts to abridge the land rights of Native Americans this very day—play out in a culture that has forgotten its past.
Garcia is here to remind us. Her images are talismans filled with magic and power, taking us back to the only trait we have that can bring about justice: empathy. -Billy Howard
INDIAN LAND FOR SALE, by Donna Garcia
On March 30, 2020 Cedric Cromwell, Wompanoag tribal chairman, told the Associated Press that he was notified by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs that the federal government had revoked reservation designation for the Mashpee Wompanoag tribe and has removed their 300 acres of ancestral land on Cape Cod from federal trust. Cromwell said the move is “cruel” and “unnecessary” as his tribe and others across the nation are struggling to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic within their sovereign lands.
This decision would destroy much of what the Wompanoag tribe has worked to build in recent years on its sovereign lands, including an independent judicial system, police force, housing and Wampanoag-language school. It is further evidence that the current administration is willing to use its discretionary powers to strip lands away from native people.
Apparently, we have forgotten that another president in our history also felt justified in allowing the federal government to seize land from indigenous tribes, at that time, throughout the southeastern United States; even though the Supreme Court had ruled doing so would be illegal.
In 1830 the Indian Removal Act was enacted.
President Jackson declared that Indian removal would “…Incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier. Clearing Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi of their Indian populations would enable those states to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power.”
Systematic hunts were made to force indigenous people from their ancestral land.
A Georgia volunteer, later a Colonel in the Confederate service, said, “‘I fought through the civil war and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by the thousands, but the Indian removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.”
Following the signing of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 the American government began forcibly relocating East Coast tribes across the Mississippi. The removal included many members of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations from their homelands to “Indian Territory” in eastern sections of the present-day Oklahoma. It was a 1,000-mile walk and took 116 days from Georgia, walking all day and only being allowed to stop at night to bury their dead.
Between the years of 1830-1838, 100,00 indigenous people were “removed” from their ancestral lands. Although, no one is sure the exact number, approximately 21,700 Muscogee and approximately 16,500 Cherokee were removed by 1831.
Not all indigenous people left in 1830, specifically the Cherokee. Many stayed, thinking that they would be allowed to live peacefully or have the ability to fight back (actually winning several legal battles against the removal order). However, the Georgia State government and Andrew Jackson, had plans for their land. Flyers began to circulate hailing “Indian Land For Sale”. White farmers flocked in droves to auctions of indigenous, ancestral land that was still, up to 1838, being occupied by its native people.
It was in 1838 that 7,000 US soldiers in Georgia enforced a final evacuation. The Cherokee, Creek, Shawnee and Choctaw villages were invaded and the people were forced to leave, at gunpoint, with only the clothing on their backs.
For the few who resisted, approximately 1,800, died while imprisoned for refusing to leave.
Historians such as David Stannard and Barbara Mann have noted that the army deliberately routed the march of the Cherokee to pass through areas of known cholera epidemics, such as Vicksburg. Stannard estimates that during the forced removal from their homelands, 8000 Cherokee died, about half the total population. Half of the Choctaw nation was wiped out and 1 in 4 Creek.
A Cherokee survivor of the trail told her granddaughter, “The winter was very harsh and many of us no longer had shoes. Our feet froze and burst, as we left bloody footprints in the snow. We were not allowed to stop to bury our dead. Many mothers carried their dead children, miles, until we stopped at nightfall. All night you could only hear digging.”
The deportation of indigenous tribes along the Trail of Tears was an act of genocide, one that has been conveniently forgotten.
In 2020, after native tribes have tried, for decades, to rebuild their culture, their sovereignty has come under attack. This recent government land grab is raising grave concerns among indigenous advocacy groups across the country that all tribes could now be at risk – again.
“These are the lands of our ancestors, and these will be the lands of our grandchildren,” Cromwell told the Associated Press, “We will not rest until we are treated equally”.
Donna Garcia is a fine art photographer whose work elaborates on the idea of pulling away from a cultural grand narrative and towards a state of becoming and potential. She creates images that аre indexical in nature not iconic – uncertain and indeterminate.
She utilizes self-portraiture with motion to provide an indication of the other, a threat to the fixed position. It is a surplus threat to the perpetuity of the modern day super structure in defining elements like gender and racial equality. Otherness is much more because it is grounded in being and is non-binary in nature.
She has exhibited at The Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta, Jadite Gallery (NYC), Center for Photographic Arts (California), SITE: Brooklyn, The Rockport Art Museum, CPAC, Denver and The PH21 Contemporary in Budapest. Her work has been featured in multiple publications and she is a 2019 nominee of reGENERATION 4: The Challenges of Photography and the Museum of Tomorrow. Musee de l’Elysee, Lausanne, Switzerland. Emerging Artists to Watch.
Donna Garcia has a Master of Fine Arts in Photography from Savannah College of Art and Design.