Local photographer captures Ho-Chunk stories

Tom Jones brings visibility to the Ho-Chunk Nation's vibrant culture.
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Portrait of Elizah Leonard: “Strong Unrelenting Spirits” (Photo by Tom Jones)

Ho-Chunk photographer Tom Jones’ striking, oversized portrait of Elizah Leonard, part of his “Strong Unrelenting Spirits” series, is hanging in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., through February 2023. Earlier this year, it earned second place honors in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. The beautifully rendered portrait of a young Ho-Chunk woman dressed in striking tribal garb is surrounded by an arc of rhinestones, shells and beads that were hand-applied by Jones himself, creating an image that shimmers beneath the gallery lights.

“The majority of what I talk about in my work is the beauty and resiliency of the Ho-Chunk culture, and the fact that we are still here,” says Jones, whose Ho-Chunk name, ChakShepSkaKah, translates to “White Eagle.” “It’s about educating others about the Ho-Chunk and about making us visible to them.”

Jones, who teaches photography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has committed his lens to telling the story of the Ho-Chunk people. Instead of a historical trajectory, Jones’ images illustrate that the contemporary Ho-Chunk and other Indigenous peoples have not assimilated nor faded from view, but maintain rich and vibrant lives and communities today. Those are stories that need to be told, he says.

“All of my work deals with Native American issues,” says Jones. “For me, it’s Indian first, and the art comes second.”

Jones’ work can also be found at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, the Chazen Museum of Art on the UW–Madison campus, the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend, the Minneapolis Museum of Art, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, and the University of New Mexico Art Museum in Albuquerque.

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“Choka Watching Oprah” depicts the late Jim Funmaker. (Photo by Tom Jones)

While the Elizah Leonard portrait shows its subject in a formal pose, other subjects of Jones’ work are captured in ordinary moments that also speak volumes about identity. One such piece, part of the Chazen collection, is “Choka Watching Oprah.” It is casually profound, on its surface an everyday scene in anyone’s living room. In the black-and-white print, an elderly man — the late Jim Funmaker, who is Jones’ “choka,” or grandfather — lies on a patterned sofa in a pleasantly cluttered room watching Oprah Winfrey on a small television. A large rendering of a bear — representing Funmaker’s membership in the Ho-Chunk Bear Clan — looks out from behind the television while a dozen framed family photos hang on an acrylic blanket.

“The image includes ‘rephotographing’ of the family photos on the wall and has more than a little bit of humor,” Jones says. “There is identity, humor, family and community shown here, which are all important parts of the Ho-Chunk culture.”

“Choka Watching Oprah” has even more cultural significance than Jones lets on, according to Melanie Tallmadge Sainz, herself a Ho-Chunk artist and founding director of the Little Eagle Arts Foundation, a Wisconsin Dells incubator for new and emerging Indigenous artists from the Western Great Lakes region.

“Culture to me means shared values and traditions,” says Sainz, a relative of Jones.

“The photo has aspects of both cultural preservation as well as social commentary that is best communicated through the arts.”

Sainz agrees with Jones that the photo has a distinct sense of humor, depicting Funmaker during what could be a typical afternoon for anyone in any culture. The fact that it shows a day in the life of a Ho-Chunk elder makes it culturally important not only to the artist, but to all other tribal members, Sainz says.

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Photo by Tom Jones

“The reason Tom’s work stands out is that there are so few Indigenous artists with that much visibility, which makes him powerful in his own right,” she explains. “Tom never wants to stand out because that is not culturally our norm. But for those of us who call ourselves Ho-Chunk, we are able to share that sense of pride among the entire 7,500 [plus] members of the tribe.”

Michael Muckian is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine. Reach him at mmuckian@icloud.com.

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