AKWESASNE — Around Akwesasne campfires, Michael P. Francis, a U.S. Marine Corps and Army National Guard veteran, spun stories of his military life overseas to his children.
Herbi M. Francis, the middle child of seven, listened to her father’s riveting tales, and her wanderlust was born.
She never leaves the “Land where the Partridge Drums” without a camera or pen.
“Thru the lens,
The words I speak
The touch of my pen
Whether my mind thought it
My heart felt it
My soul sang it
My body built it
It is thru my hands
I created it
I am a soul artisan
An artisan of the trades
Keeper of my youth
The fruit of thy womb
The future I will birth...
And the legacy I will leave...
That is how my self-reflection
The Mohawk photographer/poet/painter has traveled to China, South Korea, Senegal, South Africa, Belgium, Amsterdam, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
“All have heavily influenced my personal growth and development, beyond opening my mind and exposing myself to a wide range of cultures and societies,” she writes.
“They all have been integral in ridding myself of my own ignorance and to begin to let go of the emotional weight of history.
“As indigenous peoples to their lands all over the world have heavy histories, we can easily get into colonialism, westernization and all the -isms.”
She is an Onkwehon, a global woman, which allows her “to connect with people, to share and exchange ideas and learn about each other, really has helped me understand and put into perspective not only how I self-identify as an indigenous woman, but a global woman.
“As a Mohawk woman, I come from a rich, matrilineal society, and through my travels, I constantly found myself breaking barriers, whether its idealized stereotypes of being Native American, but really being a woman, an empowered one, an independent one breaking the stereotypical gender and societies’ roles of a woman … and beyond womanhood.
“Through travel and hard work, the human interaction, all these intersections influence how I capture, release and create. It all feeds my artistry. It is what makes up my artistic anthropology.
“At the end of the day, we’re all citizens of humanity; we’re all beings in existence. Capturing the connectivity of a relationship in existence ... is my passion.”
The photography started at 10 when she picked up her mother’s old cameras around the house.
“Once I had my hand on a camera, I just started experimenting with what I was seeing in the magic of the moment,” Herbi said.
“It really pushed the envelope of my self-discovery and my being comfortable in my own company.”
At 17, she had a 35-mm camera. In high school, she learned the ins and outs of a wet darkroom.
“I definitely appreciate the art. If I had the equipment for that, I would love to get back in that.”
From ages 15 to 19, she was in front of a camera as a model with Angie’s Models & Talents and Barret Palmer International.
“I did a little bit of runway out of Ottawa and Montreal but more advertising for commercial programs and campaigns where they needed a Native minority.
“It really taught me how to be able to have a thick skin to take constructive criticism, especially with situations in meeting people and not fitting people’s expectations of what they were looking for in the modeling industry.”
While posing for the camera, she was captivated by the creative aspects of a photo shoot and what makes it interesting.
“To learn angles and faces and how to work your body in front of the camera and how to work your angles,” she said. “It helps me to understand how you capture someone else in front of the camera.
“It was fun for me to think of cool, interesting photo shoots. I was constantly inspired by my surroundings. I love to travel. I always loved travel photography and capturing what I saw and share it.”
TRAVEL TO AFRICA
At 17, she traveled to the Republic of Senegal on the coast of West Africa.
“My grandmother’s best friend was in the Peace Corps back then,” Herbi said. “I was interested in the Peace Corps after high school. It made sense to see what she was doing and what it was all about.
“It made a big impression on me to be in a Third World country with a diverse landscape. I had the freedom to roam around. I stayed on Gorée, an island rich with history.”
From late 2010 to early 2011, she spent six months in South Africa as part of Canada World Youth, a volunteer-exchange program.
“I’m a dual citizen. I was able to apply to it. I did a women’s program. They have co-ed ones, as well. My interest was health-and-gender issues. We did a lot of HIV/AIDS awareness and domestic violence against women. We were able to latch on and be part of programs already in the community.”
She lived with a host family in South Africa.
“It was a really, complex program. I did alternative building while I was there. I got to do a wide range of volunteer work.”
In 2012, she did her eat-pray-love pilgrimage to Belgium.
“One of my best friends was over in Europe,” Herbi said. “I was supposed to meet her, and she said it was cheaper to fly into Brussels. You could get a round-trip ticket for $500 and then connect from there.”
In Belgium, her eye was focused on people and architecture.
“I’m a big people watcher,” Herbi said, who majored in women’s studies during a stint at Syracuse University. “I love anthropology.”
On long, international flights, she daydreams, reflects and writes.
FIRST SOLO EXHIBIT
By day, she’s a professional-house painter and decorative artist of interiors and exteriors. She works with her significant other, who is a tile-and-flooring contractor.
Her first solo exhibition, “Existence,” recently closed at the Foothills Gallery in Malone.
“It’s the beginning of me putting myself out there,” Herbi said.
Like many Native Americans, she is concerned about future generations. She has been a member of Pamoja International Cultural Exchange, based in Brasher Falls, for 16 years.
“It’s a multi-cultural organization sharing cultures and the arts,” Herbi said. “We’re trying to get more youth involved, especially college students to help the next generation. We’re looking for more members. We’ve been around 30 years. We need more young people to keep it going.”
She served with Habitat for Humanity in Alberta, Canada and Tierra Projects in South Africa. For now, she keeps it close to home.
“The past couple of years, I’m enjoying what the North Country has and what we have around us,” Herbi said.
“We really have such a beautiful landscape. We’re at the foothills of the Adirondacks. What better place to be? It’s such a great landscape. A lot of us forget and take it for granted.”
Email Robin Caudell:firstname.lastname@example.org
FOR MORE INFORMATION
WHAT: Pamoja International Cultural Exchange
WHERE: Brasher Falls, NY PHONE: (866) 660-5116
WEBSITE: www.picei.org EMAIL: email@example.com