Romanian photographer Maria Sturm says her project "
You Don't Look Native To Me " , a series documenting the lives of young Native Americans, all started from a conversation with her stepfather. "[He] told me about his friend Dr Jay Hansford C. Vest, an enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation," she tells Refinery29.
"At the time, my stepfather told me that the tribe was unrecognised. In fact, the Monacan were among six Virginian tribes that were only federally recognised for the first time in January 2018," she continues
. " I stumbled over that word: unrecognised. What does that mean? Why are there people that aren't recognised? What are the criteria for it and who are the faces behind the institutions deciding who you are and who you are not?"
Maria’s stepfather told her that Jay has blonde hair and blue eyes and at this she found herself checking her own internalised assumptions. "I paused for a while, realising my own confusion. Why couldn’t a Native American have blonde hair and blue eyes? Where did I absorb the knowledge of what Native American identity looks like?" From here, Sturm began to think about how we absorb references and solidify tropes, and how racist and offensive stereotypes perpetuate as a result.
Her stepfather’s friend teaches in the American Indian Studies department at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke – a place that also happens to be the economic, cultural and political centre of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina. Some 89% of the city’s population identifies as Native American. "The Lumbee has sought full federal recognition from the United States government since 1888," Sturm says. "It is the largest tribe in North Carolina, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River, and the ninth largest in the nation." Curious to find out more, Sturm visited Dr Vest’s class and asked if there were students who would like to spend some time with her, show her around and talk. The project began to unfold from there.
In tender portraits, townscapes and interiors, "You Don’t Look Native to Me" chases the notion of identity away from being defined by the way a person looks. Instead, it celebrates the vast cultural differences of Native American appearance, taste and lifestyle that Sturm found in the community of young people she spent time with; young people who are forging their self-image outside of the boxes the world has placed them in. Here, Sturm tells us the story of her journey, shares anecdotes from the conversations she had along the way, and picks out the pictures that made the project.
"Even though the work in 'You Don’t Look Native to Me' is centred around Pembroke, Robeson County, the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina live in neighbouring counties too. Robeson County is the poorest and most violent county in North Carolina. Between the '90s and the '00s, most of the industry had left (for example, Converse in Lumberton, where many Lumbee people had worked). The people I met throughout this process weren't forced to move and traditionally they were farmers. They have a very strong bond to their land."
Across many trips between 2011 and 2017, Sturm spent time in the county meeting people, making connections and being introduced to the friends and family of people she photographed in order to begin building a network of subjects. In the early years she’d travel to Pembroke from her home in Germany, and from 2015-2017 she studied in America, which put her at least on the right side of the ocean to continue with the project in a more concentrated way. Sometimes she would stay for six weeks, and other times just seven days, if that’s all she could manage. It felt important to her to keep a regular presence there throughout the project, to form lasting bonds.
Over time, Sturm found herself naturally honing in on the young people of the communities she was moving among, photographing friends and siblings as they hung out together and chatted about their lineage and how it relates to their futures. "I was particularly interested in youth and in the way their identity is presented, because it is the period of time in which you think about self-definition, hyper consciously but also unconsciously too."
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Representation is a big part of what Sturm investigates with her work, and often when talking with the people of Pembroke she would find herself having conversations with her subjects about the way they saw themselves, and the way they wanted to be seen. She notes how the rise of social media has intensified the pressure on people to think constantly about the way they present themselves. While she was in Pembroke, she spent time collecting the recurring hashtags that were being used across the community and found it fascinating. "The main theme of my work is the paradoxicality of identity," she explains. "Identifying as Native American but not fitting the stereotypical image of a Native American makes it hard to be visibly recognised, while at the same time you are not being recognised politically, for similar reasons."
"Each time I flew back to Pembroke I brought prints of the photographs I had taken before. Usually I would carry the whole stack with me and every time I met somebody, I'd ask them to reflect on what they saw and to take out their photo, of course. I recorded these conversations and I quote some of the passages in the book.
"There was a conversation, for example, with Kim, who hosted me along with her friends Chris, Robert and Virgil, where they were browsing through the images asking one another who they would cast in a Native American movie, if they were to make one. A portrait was picked and when Chris asked why, Robert explained that it was because of the long hair and the bone structure. He also acknowledged that, of course, his decision was influenced by media. They later went on to a discussion about stereotypes and privilege – these sorts of conversations are really the undercurrent of the project."
"There are many people I met many times throughout my stay. One person in particular is Jonathan Jacobs, whom I met right at the beginning, in 2011 in Dr Vest’s class. He showed me around and we met his family and friends and throughout this whole project he was my constant companion. It was especially beautiful and important to meet Jon, because he was interested in his identity, so we would roam around and meet people and Jon had all these sets of questions he was curious to find out the answers to. When I met him he identified as Lumbee and throughout this project he came to find out that he is actually Tuscarora.
"This is where it gets a bit more complex. Pre-colonisation there were several tribes inhabiting the same area: the Cheraw, the Tuscarora, the Haliwa-Saponi and the Cherokees to name a few. You can find three native language families: Algonquian, Siouan and Iroquois, which suggest migration due to wars, climate change, etc. All these tribes weren't recognised. In an attempt to gain federal recognition, the Lumbee name was voted for in 1952 (and passed legislation in 1953) to unite all tribes living in and around Robeson County. The idea was to form a conglomerate, so the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) wouldn‘t ignore a large group of people in their petition for recognition. The tribe petitioned again for federal recognition, which failed because the BIA stated the Lumbee had only existed since 1953, and it can't be proved therefore that they existed before 1492. So the Tuscarora fall under the umbrella of the Lumbee and even though the Lumbee name is fairly new, many people only know the Lumbee name nowadays."
Each of Sturm’s portraits is beautifully set, in natural light, away from any overtly theatrical or staged representation. "My initial idea was to photograph people outside in the surrounding natural environment in order to subtly but consistently include the importance of land," she explains. "But after I met people multiple times and started to hang out with them, I naturally became more of a fly on the wall, observing and photographing. I also moved away from the outside portraits, because in a way I wanted to come closer and also make images that are less static." Here, a young woman called Mescal nurses her baby Frankie, accompanied by her eldest daughter Kassidy.
Of all the pictures that Sturm has taken, it is perhaps only this one, of a young girl called Kearsey wearing vampire teeth, that would fall into the category of staged. "I met her at a Powwow on Halloween weekend. I had photographed Kearsey during the day, when I found her wearing the fangs, but I deleted my card by accident and so went back to her later in the night and asked her to put them back on for me so I could restage the situation. This became one of the key images for me."
Kearsey also identifies as Tuscarora, which leads us down the road of identity politics. Many Tuscarora don’t identify with the Lumbee name and have prejudices against the Lumbee people. The Tuscarora have a very strict enrolment policy – you have to prove one quarter of bloodline being Native – in comparison to the Lumbee, which is another reason for disliking. Kearsey and her mother Tamra were dancing among the Lumbee, setting a hopeful example in these inner tribal conflicts."
As well as portraits of the Lumbee people, there are townscapes, landscapes and little glimpses of the world they live in too. "The interiors and the landscapes are important because they are like portraits too," Maria muses. "They show how the place has been shaped across generations in connection to the importance of land (that ironically isn't their land, since the Lumbee aren't federally recognised). In a more intimate way, the interiors show how identity is also visible in people’s homes."
When asked to select some of the most significant images from the project, Sturm goes straight for this one, of Patricia, Mescal and Frankie. "It’s an important image for me because it distils the strength and pride I found there. Lumbee pride is also in particular stemming from the story of Henry Berry Lowrie. It is said that Henry Berry was hiding in the swamps when he led the resistance in North Carolina during the American Civil War. He is remembered as a Robin Hood figure, particularly for the Tuscarora and Lumbee people, who consider him one of their tribe and a pioneer in the fight for their civil rights, personal freedom, and tribal self-determination. Mescal is also somebody I spent a lot of time with, she's the daughter of Reggie, who leads the Culture Class in town."
The next image Sturm selects to tell us about is this one, of a young boy called Manny in his regalia wearing a bandana covering his face. "Manny told me that he's actually dancing with the bandana on. I was already unconsciously focusing on portraits where people's faces were covered somehow – what can you tell about somebody's identity, if you only see half their faces? I think about this a lot, about our ways of seeing and our perception."
In another image of Manny and his partner, the two sit in his car, her gazing at him with her hand on his head, him gazing out of the window, hands on the steering wheel. Afternoon sunlight streams through the windows and casts long shadows across the vehicle. In a different photograph their hands clasp together tenderly. In yet another one, a young couple embrace. Sturm’s images are filled with these quiet reflections on the sensitivity and bonds between the people in these communities.
On the subject of connection, Sturm reaches for a final portrait. "This is a particularly important image I took of Scottie, who I spent a lot of time with there. He's wearing a Redskin jacket and hat, which would be considered politically incorrect by outsiders, but also by other Natives. Scottie was wearing it with pride. 'This is who I am,' he told me. What you can see in an image like this is that identity can manifest in pop cultural symbols too. It also reveals another paradox in that people argue that Scottie is not a real Native, because he doesn't know his history. But the reasons for this don’t seem too important. Especially for tribes in the southeast who have lost a lot of their history, not only through assimilation but also through fear, living in the Jim Crow south. And who are we to judge what is right? None of us live like we did 500 years ago, but it’s easy for us to judge others for not fitting the stereotypes we have of them. If Scottie finds strength and selfhood through this clothing, why shouldn’t he be allowed to wear it?"
Sturm says that she showed others this image of Scottie, and while many of them said they wouldn’t share his choice of clothes, they recognised him as one of them and didn’t judge him for it. "There’s an understanding between them," she says. "They share the struggle."
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