Spirit Hawk Eye: A Tribute to American Native Culture

Spirit Hawk Eye: A Tribute to American Native Culture

Heidi Laughton has always had a fascination with world culture and has used this inspiration in many of her photography projects.  After spending time on projects in China and Kenya, Laughton is now turning her attention to Native American culture.  Her latest exhibit, “Spirit Hawk Eye: A Tribute to American Native Culture” features portraits of Native people from tribes in New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Laughton told The Navajo Times that she's seen a lot of photojournalism stories about the issues facing Native American culture and she didn't want to focus on that. Rather, she wanted to create something that was positive and celebrates the cultures.

Laughton’s background includes a successful career in creative services, commissioning and overseeing music video shoots, documentaries and web content, for world-renowned recording artists at Sony Music UK. She has worked as a professional photographer, shooting and writing for magazines, advertising campaigns and working for non-profits. Her advertising and editorial clients include such prestigious names as Fortune (Time Inc.), Enterprise Holdings, Forty Forty Advertising Agency, Cannonball Advertising, American Red Cross, Save The Children (China), Kisumu Medical and Educational Trust (Kenya), Keen Footwear, Israeli consulate, EMI music and Official Playstation Magazine. In 2008, she also curated and produced a three-day juried event of photographers from around the world “Fresh Photo Fair” on behalf of the Lucie Foundation and last year she was a judge at PX3, Paris Photo Prize.

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Laughton’s real forte lies in the way she gains the trust of her subjects and her in-depth research for fully integrated storytelling. While working in Los Angeles, she noticed a less talked-about side of Hollywood that grabbed her attention. Los Angeles has the largest number of Native American communities, more than any other city in the U.S. Her fascination with world culture and the knowledge that her own grandfather was a Native American soldier based in England during the second world war, only made her want to learn more about this heritage and to produce a project that celebrated the culture in an inspirational way. “Spirit Hawk Eye: A Tribute to American Native Culture” celebrates American Indian culture with a series of portraits that reveal aspects of present-day cultural practices and lifestyles, remarkable individual stories and colorful, spiritual and artistic elements of native communities.


Embedding herself within the culture, Laughton was taken under the wing of a few Elders and museum curators, who advised and helped support this project. She photographed a diverse selection of people that create a glimpse into different facets of life and also includes successful and influential people who are inspirational to Native youth. The images present a mix of modern and traditional regalia, with the traditional regalia not necessarily being a true representation of the wearer’s tribe, but often an amalgamation of different tribal influences as is often the case today.

“I was looking to produce a photo story that didn’t focus on the many issues facing Native Americans today, but instead concentrated on the positive aspects of an extremely varied and beautiful culture. The series is meant to be a celebration. I’ve always believed that the best way to engage viewers so they can relate, is by focusing on personal stories. It’s these details and anecdotes, even though just a small glimpse into these diverse communities, which make the wider learnings more memorable,” says Laughton.

With a project this expansive, Laughton faced many challenges. Once she started shooting, she was virtually a one-person crew, often having to drive long distances, sometimes as much as 5,000 miles to reach reservations. Shooting with medium and large format film cameras – no digital was used on the project – also brought its own obstacles. Dust storms and wind were a major factor in shooting with lights on location in Arizona and New Mexico, but she determined to stick to her visual aesthetic.

“Sometimes, I didn't have the shoots confirmed until about half an hour before the sun went down by the time all the negotiations had been completed and contracts signed with the tribal officers” explains Laughton. Although people were always enthusiastic to participate, she had to confront work schedules, people having to look after children, and locations were very hard to come by with permits and location fees required when using pro lights. Laughton often felt honored by the faith the participants had in her work right from the start, and for allowing her access into many spiritual situations and locations, and she would always follow the protocols with utmost respect.

Even though the project is ambitious, and budgets are extremely tight, Laughton relishes in the challenge, “I have learned so much and met so many amazing and interesting people, that the hard work is worth it. The project has taken me on my own personal journey” she says.

“Spirit Hawk Eye: A Tribute to American Native Culture” started in California, Arizona and New Mexico and intends to reach further into other U.S states in order to create more compelling portraits of inspirational people, who have success stories to tell and who continue to promote the ways of their heritage.


Currently the project is being produced as a traveling exhibit for galleries and museums. Each framed, museum quality, limited edition, archival pigment print is displayed with a text panel alongside, explaining educational and anecdotal information relating to the portrait. There is also the option to include public speakers, dancers, crafts and musicians at the events, culminating in a visually compelling and complete cultural experience. Looking to the future, Ms Laughton hopes to acquire sponsorship or funding, to help continue the project and to expand it into different formats, for example, she would like to add videography and interviews to the show, and to create a smaller, more mobile exhibition, made from portable canvas pull-ups for schools and educational centers (at the moment the images and text panels are being used by some public speakers in schools as powerpoint presentations). Based on the stories the participants have to tell, a documentary would seem an ideal outcome to the project, especially with Laughton’s many years of experience on film sets from her previous career, however Ms laughton instead has ideas for several short films to be made which could lead to a factual TV series.

Ms Laughton has received letters of appreciation from people who have viewed the website or seen the show in galleries. Daniel Ramos, Navajo spiritual healer wrote to her, “It is that time in the world. Time must be made for the work you are doing.” Curators such as Jina Brenneman, of The Harwood Museum of Art, University of New Mexico, Wendy Earle, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Museum of the Southwest, James Nottage of the Eiteljorg, Travis Suazo, Executive Director, Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, and Carolyn Gilman of NMAI have all expressed their appreciation of the work.

Laughton will continue her journey with more shoots and exhibitions, and plans a possible book publication in the future. More portraits can be seen at the website: www.WaysoftheWorldExhibits.com

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Sarita McGowan

About Toyacoyah Brown

Toyacoyah Brown is an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation, currently living in Chicago. She received her B.A. in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma and an M.A. in Media Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. When she's not scouring the Internet for fun things to share with PowWows.com readers you can find her digging for vinyl in her local record store or curling up with a good book.

6 Comments on “Spirit Hawk Eye: A Tribute to American Native Culture”

  • Avatar for Heidi



    Thank you for publishing the article above. I’m pleased to say that the exhibition is currently on view at The American Museum of Britain until end of Nov 2015. It’s also fantastic that the museum has raised funds to bring across three of the people photographed, for an in-house residency at the museum in the UK, to help teach workshops and educate British school children about contemporary Native ways of life. Spreading the word and knowledge and bridging cultures!

  • Avatar for Shirley and Stephen St.Clair

    Shirley and Stephen St.Clair


    Beautiful photographs. Thank you for taking time and efort to learn about and capture the stories and heart of Native culture. Look forward to seeing more of your work.

  • Avatar for della



    absolutely gorgeous and frank, getting to know and becoming friends with people helps to understand the complexities of every faucet of every individual.

  • Avatar for Bobbi Sanchez

    Bobbi Sanchez


    I love this website. Looking at all the videos and photos of dancers we know and most have never met. But one thing I never see on your website are photos of California Traditional dancers or any mentioning of them. Since this is California and their are Powwows on our land yet noone recognizes our people, asks permission, says thank you or includes us. We are not contest dancers cause noone gives us our own category so we don’t really go to Casino Powwows. And since your pictures mostly come from Casino Powwows our California people are never portrayed. I would love it if you guys can come to a Traditional California Powwow where our California people love dancing at. It would be nice to see us Chumash, Ahlone or Tongva on your site or on Facebook. And not pictures from Chumash on the rez. I mean us Traditional poor Indians that dedicate our lives to dancing Chumash at most every Powwow for 18 years and never getting a dime for it. That’s Traditionalism lol. So please take some time and go to the regular Powwows and checking out the dancers that are excluded from Casino Powwows. Thank You.

    • Avatar for Heidi



      Hello Bobbi
      There are at least two Chumash Natives depicted on my website, including Alan (Chumash tomol paddler, story teller and respected elder) and Victor (the guy with tattoos). Both images were taken in California. None of the images have been taken at a Casino powwow. I’m glad you like the website, thank you.

  • Avatar for Barbara Yergeau

    Barbara Yergeau


    Love the photos. B E A U T I F U L.

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