PABLO — There were a host of suggestions on the bulletin board at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography for its students to shoot back in the summer of 2005.
Rodeos, car shows, baseball games, summer concerts.
Somewhere in the mix, Sue Reynolds noticed the annual Arlee Powwow.
“It’s the first powwow I ever attended,” says Reynolds, who lives in Walnut Creek, Calif.
It most certainly wasn’t the last.
Reynolds, who had spent a quarter of a century working in corporate marketing and public relations in the San Francisco Bay Area, had come to Missoula, and the Rocky Mountain School of Photography, with the intention of changing her life.
She was, she says, burned out on the “high-speed” nature of her career.
“I had no idea what shape that change would take,” she says, but she found it on a summer’s day in Arlee.
“I remember getting out of my car and walking into the dance arbor, and it just felt like I was home,” Reynolds says. “It all seemed very familiar, very comfortable.”
She didn’t shoot a ton of pictures that day, although she chatted with some tribal elders and took some portraits.
Likewise, Reynolds did more conversing than photographing a couple of weeks later at the Standing Arrow Powwow in Elmo, where she learned more about the Kootenai, Salish and Pend d’Oreille people.
In the six years since those first two, Reynolds has attended dozens of powwows and a few other types of tribal celebrations across the American West.
“To be honest, I lost count when I got to 50,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s 60 or 70 … it may be 75.”
And always, she’s had her camera with her.
Reynolds’ photography exhibit, “Understanding Native American People,” opens Tuesday at the People’s Center in Pablo, midway between the two Flathead Indian Reservation powwows that launched her on a new path.
Within two years of that first powwow in Arlee, Reynolds had published a limited-edition book, “Proud People: Nations Within a Nation.” It contains 50 images by Reynolds, and text by Phill Allen of the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho and Victor Charlo of the Flathead Reservation.
“Vic was very generous,” Reynolds says. “He gave me a poem he’d written about the Arlee celebration and his lifelong memories of it. At that point I’d only been to the Arlee Powwow twice.”
The 27-piece photography exhibit contains some pictures that appeared in the book, and more from powwows attended since.
“It’s a way to thank and honor the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille people and all they’ve done for me,” Reynolds says. “It’s where I got my start.”
Not coincidentally, the 113th Arlee celebration starts Thursday, two days after Reynolds’ exhibit opens, and runs through the Fourth of July.
She’ll be there.
“Absolutely,” says Reynolds, who has missed only one Arlee Powwow since 2005, and that only because she was attending another powwow in South Dakota. “It’s a good place to be.”
Photography has long been an interest of Reynolds, who earned a degree in art history from the University of California, Davis. She also does landscape photography.
“But it’s hard to make a career of it, especially living in the San Francisco area, where the cost of living is so expensive,” she says.
So she went back to school, earned her MBA, and began her career in marketing and public relations with Wells Fargo.
She went on to open her own public relations firm, which she operated for 16 years.
“I felt successful,” Reynolds says, “but after a quarter of a century I was starting to feel burned out. I found myself asking, ‘Is this all there is?’ ”
An only child, Reynolds also spent 10 years caring for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s.
“I sensed mom was near the end of her life” when Reynolds decided to enroll at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography, she says. “She was in her early 90s, so I found good caregivers and came to Missoula for the summer.”
After her mother died in 2006, a modest inheritance gave Reynolds the opportunity to “go out on a limb and try something different.”
She hit the powwow trail.
Referrals from former Salish Kootenai College President Joe McDonald gave Reynolds an in at the Crow Fair in 2007.
“A wonderful family of dancers,” she says. “I was headed to the Black Hills in 2006 and driving across the Crow Reservation. I had this satellite view from Google, and it was easy to hone in on the Crow Fair Powwow Grounds. I drove through it while it was empty and quiet. It gave me a feel for that space.”
With McDonald’s help, she was back for the actual event the next year, billed as “the biggest tepee village in the world.”
“I was so fortunate, I got to know one of the grandmothers in the family who passed the year after I met her,” Reynolds says. “Her father was a grandson of Curly, the youngest scout who worked for (Gen. George) Custer. She told me the story of Curly at Little Big Horn, a story passed down through her family, and it was amazing in its detail. It was as if it had happened yesterday.”
That oral tradition of storytelling is one of the marked differences between some native and non-Native cultures, Reynolds has discovered.
Yet she had her own story, passed down through her non-native family.
“I have an ancestor who fought against the Modoc Indians in 1872,” Reynolds admits.
It was her great-grandfather, and she can remember her father proudly recounting his grandfather’s exploits in the Modoc War, where he was said to have saved the life of a U.S. Army general.
Her perception of that story has changed since she started attending powwows.
“I’ve gotten to know Native American people from the Plains to the Rockies,” Reynolds says. “I’ve learned what they suffered through during the reservation era and the genocide.
“I remember the sense of pride my father had when he’d tell that story of his grandfather, but for me, it became a sense of shame.”
And somewhere along the powwow circuit, Reynolds met a woman from the small Modoc Tribe, which was removed from its ancestral lands near the Pacific Coast and transferred to Oklahoma after the war.
“I took a risk,” Reynolds says. “I told her what my ancestor had done, and told her I was sorry it happened.”
“Your great-grandfather did what he was supposed to do,” the Modoc woman told Reynolds, “and my ancestors did what they were supposed to do.”
Reynolds says she felt “a great weight lifted” with the woman’s words.
“For all of us to move forward, that kind of has to happen on a person-to-person level,” Reynolds says.
Much of her photography is now devoted to helping facilitate that. She would like her images to help build bridges between Native and non-Native peoples.
Maybe, she hopes, they will entice non-Natives to attend a powwow.
They are wonderful places, Reynolds has discovered over the last six years, for such healing to begin.