Script Smiling Indians

In the early 1900s, photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis traveled around the United

States photographing North American Indians from 80 tribes. Those 2000 or so black

and white images show Native Americans in tribal dress: serious, 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, smiling and laughing. It was co-

created by Ryan Red Corn, an Osage Indian from Oklahoma. Journalist Edward Block

is chatting with Mr. Red Corn today to find out more about the video and why he

decided to make it.

EDWARD BLOCK: Welcome to the program, Ryan.

Mr. RYAN RED CORN: Well, thank you for having me.

EDWARD BLOCK: You have dedicated this video to the photographer Edward Sheriff

Curtis. Did you mean that dedication sincerely or were you being sarcastic?

Mr. RED CORN: I think it would be fair to say that I was being sarcastic.

EDWARD BLOCK: Well, why is that? What’syour problem with those images fromEdward Curtis?

Mr. RED CORN: Basically, they appear in 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 have of Indians. I mean, they imagine that Indians don’t ever smile.
EDWARD BLOCK: You know, it’s interesting because when I look at those old
photographs, I see images that seem to me very dignified, very proud, unsmiling, yes,
but in 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 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 image of what Native Americans
are like today.
EDWARD 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 were 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.
EDWARD BLOCK: And it worked?
Mr. RED CORN: It pretty much worked. I mean, it’s like… the presence of humor in
Indian country is everywhere, it’s just right there on the surface all the time. All the
Indians I know are smiling Indians. While we were making the video, everybody in the
community wanted to participate in order to show that the old-fashioned image that
Indians are always serious is simply not true.
EDWARD BLOCK: Isn’t it true, however, that many North American Indians have really
hard lives? Isn’t it difficult to smile when life around you is so tough?
Mr. RED CORN: It is true that for many Indians, especially those living in poor areas in
and around reservations, life is not easy. And sometimes there aren’t many reasons to
smile. But even in those conditions, people always find a reason to be positive, and
that happens to everybody, not just Indians. The point here was to show a side of our

communities that a lot of people never get a chance to see. It’s like saying, not only are

we still here, we’re enjoying ourselves, too.

EDWARD BLOCK: And you really must have

enjoyed yourself making this video, right?

Mr. RED CORN: Oh yes, very much. When I was shooting the video, I couldn’t stop

smiling all the time and my face hurt so much just from looking at all these people

laughing, especially the children and the older people, they were having so much fun!

EDWARD 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, we heard some gunshots across the

street. And I thought: Man, this would be a really poetic way to end my days if I’m

sitting here working on this video, and a stray bullet comes in and gets me. 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 like a good way to finish because, you know, that

was exactly what we were trying to show in this project.

EDWARD BLOCK: Well, Ryan Red Corn,

thanks for talking to us about it.

Mr. RED CORN: You’re very welcome, I appreciate it.