Graduate student wins grant for Native American photography project

April 26, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jeremy Dennis, a master of fine arts candidate in the Penn State School of Visual Arts, is one of 10 recipients of a 2016–17 $10,000 Dreamstarter grant for his art-based photography project, “On This Site,” which aims to preserve and create awareness of culturally significant Native American locations on Long Island, New York.

The Dreamstarter program is an initiative of Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of American Indian people throughout the United States. The grant program, whose theme for 2016–17 is “arts and culture,” was created to help American Indian youth implement projects that will make their communities stronger. All grant recipients are American Indians under age 30.

Dennis, an artist and member of the Shinnecock and Hassanamisco-Nipmuc community, said he has always been curious about how the Shinnecock people and their reservation were able to remain on Long Island, so close to a major area of colonization. “Receiving this award grants the opportunity to represent the Shinnecock Tribe in a new way, while also recognizing the importance of its past history,” he said, noting the project will allow him to reflect upon archaeological and oral histories to answer essential, culturally defining questions. “My work is influenced by my experience as a Native American, and what that means in regards to history, identity and community. I hope that it will evoke empathy for indigenous people while also being educational about things that matter to us.”

Dennis grew up on a reservation and his photography reflects that experience. Primarily, he creates images that depict traditionally audible stories and mythologies of First Nation people. Although each tribe has distinct traditions, Dennis focuses on sharing knowledge and reflecting on it, rather than reinforcing divisions between tribes. His depictions may change elements of the story, typically the environment and iconography, to represent his ancestral region and tradition. Through this method, the images become a mix of research, interpretation and life experience.

He recently shot a photograph to reflect the story of a man who falls in love with a woman but, upon rejection, he inflicts a curse that will transform her into a monster. Before she is transformed, the woman tells her family, who end her life to save the village. “After reading this story, along with Eduardo Duran’s 'Native American Post-Colonial Psychology,' I saw a connection between the resilience of women in both myth and nonfiction writing,” Dennis explained. “In Duran’s analysis, he finds that in reservation communities, women can become the victims of domestic violence due to repressed male rage — not being able to maintain their warrior archetype. I wanted this photograph to enable both readings, so I chose this scene of her sacrifice and resilience out of the rest of the story.”

Dennis said he has been able to work with many professors and artists in the School of Visual Arts who have helped shape and develop his artistic practice. “It’s a great environment to continuously see new art,” he noted. “My mentor, Professor Lonnie Graham, believes that this project is important, because not only does it establish and re-examine sites that may have been lost or overlooked by a dominant culture, but it establishes a point for social and cultural dialogue that is imperative as we begin to acknowledge our heritage.”

For more examples of Dennis’ work, visit


Last Updated April 26, 2016