This would be my final weekend to capture this monument. And last Sunday … I got it.
Let me explain.
In 2021, the Oneida Indian Nation erected a series of nine giant tipis along the New York State Thruway, as part of an art project and memorial called “Passage of Peace.” The tipis represent unity with other Native American tribes and nations, as a measure of solidarity and remembrance for those lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to those who have lost their culture and heritage due to such genocidal atrocities as residential schools, relocation and racist stereotypical tropes.
I wanted to photograph this art installation, but I kept running into a string of bad luck. And “bad luck” meant my Chevrolet was trapped in the repair bay for a week. So by visiting this art installation, I would give my car its first true “long test” of a post-repair road trip.
Sunday afternoon. Off to Central New York. I know that the art installation is somewhere between the entrance of Exit 33 on the New York State Thruway, but I had no idea which side of the Thruway – or whether it was before or after Exit 33, heading westbound on I-90.
Then I found it. Nine big tipis, all carefully arranged along the New York State Thruway, at the rightmost approach of Exit 33, heading westbound towards Syracuse. But there was no safe location to photograph them, at least not on the Thruway. I mean, how in the world am I going to pull over, get my camera and tripod out, and try to photograph these big tipis while cars are zooming past me? Or worse, what if I get caught by a New York State Trooper for parking in a non-emergency situation? Yeah, and with my luck, I’d end up with Johnny Badge who needs one more ticket to complete his quota.
What to do, what to do. Then it occurred to me. The tipis are arranged near a flyover bridge that spans the Thruway. If I can get to that bridge … I can photograph straight down on the tipis from a safe distance. No emergency parking on the Thruway. No dealing with troopers.
I pulled off to Exit 33. With a combination of Google Maps and some dumb luck, I found the flyover, Tilden Hill Road.
And after a little scouting … I saw the tipis.
And yes, that green sign at far left does say Exit 33, which is the exit for Turning Stone Casino. But as much as I could use this photo as a reference point, I didn’t want to use this image composition for competition. The photo reinforces the stereotypical image of Native Americans as some sort of savage, loin-clothed, war-painted primitives who derive their only survivable income from operating a casino. That’s nowhere near what the Oneidas have achieved. Plus, the early Oneidas lived in longhouses, not in tipis. The tipis are here in solidarity with similar art exhibitions in the Western United States, and, for better or for worse, a tipi is more recognizable than an Oneida longhouse.
What you see in that picture is a photo from an area of Tilden Hill Road that adjoins a semi-barren field. Now I could have walked onto that field and photographed the tipis up close, but that brings up another restriction. That field is Oneida Indian Nation land. Sovereign soil, with plenty of NO TRESPASSING signs all over the area. I can’t just walk on it like it’s nobody’s business. The last thing I need is to have the Oneida Indian Nation police show up. That’s going to be even harder to talk my way out of. With my luck, trespassing could earn me community service – most likely a year of scrubbing the toilets at the local SavOn gas station.
So I resolved. The best thing I could do was to shoot from the flyover at Tilden Hill Road. Keep both feet on Tilden Hill Road, so as to not trespass on either Thruway land or Oneida Nation land.
Gotta go back to the car and switch out lenses. My ultrawide won’t work, the tipis are too far away. Need my 80-200 f/2.8 telephoto.
Now to wait for nightfall.
And at night … the tipis are illuminated with several changing colors. Blues and pinks for the men and women who have perished from COVID-19 – the virus has ravaged Native American populations at a much higher and more deadly level. And orange tipis represent the memories and lives of those whose cultures were torn away by the forced enrollment in residential schools in the United States and in Canada.
In other words, this is more than just a monument. It’s a testament to understanding hundreds of years of racism, bigotry, ignorance and repugnance that America has forced upon those of the First Nations. I challenge you, right off the bat. Name five famous Native Americans. Right now. Come on. Snap snap. No, you can’t say Pocahontas or Tonto. And Chief Jay Strongbow was actually Italian.
Let me help you out. Sequoyah, the creator of the Cherokee alphabet that’s still in use today. Tecumseh. Crazy Horse. Wilma Mankiller. Dennis Banks and Russell Means. Billy Mills. Jim Thorpe. Deb Haaland. Massasoit. Powhatan. Notah Begay III.
I waited until the sun set. And in the night, the tipis shined like colored beacons of hope.
A few shots here and there with my trusty old Nikkor 80-200 f/2.8 telephoto lens …
And this was the best shot of the batch.
There it is. The dichotomy of modern America – fast cars, highways, a no-texting highway sign – adjacent to nine glowing tipis, a symbol that commuters are driving across portions of sovereign land, and to not forget the past, but to officially move forward with healing and reconciliation and restoration. All nine of them – six orange, three blue – captured at just the right second and at the proper color hue, as traffic whizzed by, high-beam headlights guiding the journey forward.
And I can use that image for a panoramic photo competition entry … or I can crop it a little tighter if I wish.
Nailed it. Competition Season 2022 for sure.
And I need to do something special with this image. I can’t just take a picture like this and keep it for myself.
So I hereby designate this image as a “conscience photo.”
A conscience photo can still be entered in competitions and shows, but should it win any monetary awards, 100% of its prize money will be donated to the National Council on American Indians’ COVID-19 charity.
It’s the right thing to do. And honestly, this will be the first time I’ve ever designated a photographic image in such a way that I will claim no personal prize money if this photo earns any. Let this photo help inspire and heal. Let it truly be a passage of peace.
And I’m totally good with that.