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One of first Native American congresswomen praises Bismarck photographer's portrait project

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U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland said her portrait session with Bismarck ambrotypist Shane Balkowitsch was amazing, amazing, amazing.

Haaland, one of the first two Native American women elected to the U.S. Congress, spoke Sunday at Balkowitsch's book signing for his first volume of "Northern Plains Native Americans: A Wet Plate Perspective." The book showcases 50 of Balkowitsch's favorite portraits done in the 19th century photography method of silver on glass film, inspired by the first photograph of Hunkpapa Lakota holy man Sitting Bull.

"I think it's notable that he's taking pictures of us in 2019 in our traditional clothing using sort of a somewhat ancient method of photography," said Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna who represents New Mexico's 1st Congressional District. "I think it's just layer upon layer of culture and art and his, of course, incredible eye, because the pictures that he takes are amazing." 

Balkowitsch, who is already planning his second volume of portraits, plans to produce 1,000 images of Native Americans. He said he has about 315 so far and is likely to finish in 10 or 12 years. 

"It's my life's work," Balkowitsch said. "This is just the first step." 

Haaland, who was last in a series of speakers that included North Dakota state Rep. Ruth Buffalo, South Dakota state Rep. Tamara St. John and Ernie LaPointe, Sitting Bull's great-grandson, expressed interest in and support for Balkowitsch's photography and the meaning it conveys for different cultures. 

Balkowitsch produced four images of Haaland during her visit to Bismarck. One will stay with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, which is curating Balkowitsch's portraits. Another image of Haaland will go to the Historical Society of New Mexico.

Haaland also in her speech addressed social issues facing Native Americans, including severe poverty, access to running water, and missing and murdered women, as well as stereotypes of Native culture. Balkowitsch's project "works to reframe the indigenous story," she said.

"I think what he's doing is an amazing project," Haaland said. 

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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