Alum Greg Rust (’78) fights Native American stereotypes

“I turn on the TV and see these characters and think, ‘This is not the way these people are.’ ”

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By Brent Donaldson
NKU Marketing + Communications

Greg Rust has always been part chameleon.

While pursuing his bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Northern Kentucky University in the late ’70s, Rust took nearly a dozen photography classes from Barry Andersen, the heralded NKU photography professor Rust often credits as his greatest mentor and supporter.

Rust graduated with an anthropology degree in 1978, but it was his photography skills that convinced the Cincinnati Reds and the Cincinnati Bengals to hire Rust as their official photographer for the last 10 and 20 years, respectively. Rust is also the director of photography at Xavier University — a position he’s held for more than 25 years.

Not bad for an anthropology major.

But with his new exhibition on display through spring, 2016 

at the Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Rust is turning back to his anthropology roots. The exhibition, titled “Mascots,” coincides with November’s designation as Native American Heritage Month.

“Mascots” is meant to draw attention to the larger issues faced by today’s Native Americans by shining a light on the caricatures and cultural stereotypes displayed throughout professional and amateur sports.

“I turn on the TV and see these characters,” Rust says, “and think, ‘This is not the way these people are.’ And it kind of infuriated me that this is what they had to put up with.”

Of course, adopting Native American imagery and culture in sports is a controversial issue, with some arguing that Native American mascots and other cultural associations serve as tributes, rather than a “celebration of retrograde and false stereotypes,” as The New Yorker put it back in 2013.

For the “Mascots” exhibition, Rust traveled to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeast Montana to photograph tribe members, many of whom he had befriended over the years. Rust’s photos lay bare the distinction between perpetuated cultural stereotypes of Native Americans and the reality of their everyday lives.

The project began when Rust befriended Dennis Limberhand, a tribe elder on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. “Dennis Limberhand initially invited my daughter and I to visit Montana and the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 2008,” Rust says. “A friendship was kindled and I have returned many times. Being warmly welcomed by Dennis’s family and friends, they granted me the opportunity to photograph many aspects of their lives.”

For the past several years, Rust spent time with and photographed the Cheyenne as they celebrated birthdays, attended rodeos and powwows, or simply grilled out and took in a ballgame. His intent was to document their typical, everyday experiences.

“Having experienced the sometimes-harsh reservation life, [I] know the Cheyenne as people and not as the stereotypes that have been painted of them by American society,” Rust says. “Portraying the Cheyenne as people, not mascots, became my goal with the photographs I’m sharing here.”

Guests at the exhibition's opening panel discussion included Dennis Limberhand as well as former Reds skipper Dusty Baker. Rust and Baker became friends during Baker’s tenure with the Reds, and the two men now share a number of mutual acquaintances in various Native American tribes—including members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe in Montana.

“Dennis and I have become close friends over the years,” Rust says. “I travel [to Montana] and he has been to my house several times. Then he became friends with Dusty Baker—who has Native American blood on both sides of his family—and Dusty invited him to baseball games. It all kind of came together.”

Years in the making, Rust says that the exhibition’s goal has always been to create awareness of what he calls the “real” issues found on today’s Native American reservations—namely alcoholism, drug abuse, bad housing, and poor healthcare. “Dennis has been planning this with me since day one,” Rust says. “He’s given me the blessing of all the leaders in the tribe.

“No matter the subject, my guiding principle remains a quote from cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict: ‘The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.’ ”

To see more of Greg’s photography, visit: http://gregrust.com