Photographers share reflections on their identity during Native American Heritage Month

Native American photographers working with National Geographic impart the importance of their heritage and culture throughout the United States.

Tara Kerzhner photographed Antoinette Peters, who is Coeur d'Alene and Nez Perce, while profiling multiple tribes across the state of Idaho. Kerzhner says working on this project allowed her to reconnect with her Nez Perce heritage. “Honoring Native people through photography feels incredibly significant in deepening my own Native identity," she says. "Taking photos became the foundation for building relationships with other Native people who have shared a similar journey.”
Photograph by Tara Kerzhner

The celebration of Native American Heritage month allows time to not only honor the history and contributions of Native Americans to the United States but also to highlight their culture and heritage, which is deeply embedded in America’s core.

Efforts to make what is now known as Native American Heritage Month started in the early 1900s. New York became the first state to establish “American Indian Day” in 1916. President Gerald Ford signed a joint resolution proclaiming October 10-16 as “Native American Awareness Week” in 1976. Fourteen years later, President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November 1990 “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Similar proclamations have been issued each year since 1994.

While the original name is a clear example of how Indigenous people have been misrepresented for decades, the month-long recognition provides an opportunity to break down stereotypes and perceptions. Native American photographers working with National Geographic chose photos and shared personal reflections displaying the importance of their heritage and culture throughout the United States.


Tailyr Irvine, Salish and Kootenai

Tailyr Irvine has always wanted to be able to show an authentic view of Native Americans through her pictures, hoping they will be seen in the same light as other Americans and that non-Native Americans will be able to connect with the images.

“I’d like my work to be a tool to educate and help dismantle stereotypes that have plagued Indigenous peoples since Edward S. Curtis labeled us the ‘vanishing race.’ We haven’t vanished,” Irvine says.

She also wants to be an example for other aspiring Native American photographers who want to highlight their heritage through photography.

“I push hard to get access to spaces that are not built for Indigenous peoples because every time I occupy those spaces, I leave the door open for other Native Americans to enter,” Irvine says. “The more space our work occupies, the less space will be available for ignorance.”

Part of Irvine’s work surrounds her blood quantum project, highlighting the inconsistencies within the blood quantum system used in the early 1900s by the United States government. The system was initially used to identify, regulate, and calculate the amount of “Indian blood” a Native American person possesses. In the photo, the newborn’s blood quantum was already being discussed, which can have major implications for the baby’s future.

“She is weeks old in this photograph and has been assigned a fraction that will greatly impact her life,” Irvine says. “She is not able to hold her head without support yet and we're discussing her children's fraction.”

Matika Wilbur, Swinomish and Tulalip

Teexeeshe’ Jones-Scott, Tsinte Steinruck, Chvski Jones-Scott, Delaina Bommelyn, and Allie Castellaw are pictured in their Ch'a~lh wvn Srdee-yvn (Flower Dance) regalia at the Dee-ni’ Nii~-li~ (Smith River) at Da’-chvn-dvn (River Mouth) in Tolowa Dee-Ni’, CA. Matika Wilbur photographed these women in their regalia and is from the Swinomish and Tulalip peoples in Coastal Washington. Her work has been dedicated to changing the way Native Americans are perceived. She has photographed more than 400 tribes in the United States as a part of her documentary titled “Project 562.”

“I genuinely believe in Native-led content visibility as a way to overcome the toxic Indigenous ‘extinction narrative’ and instead uphold stories that explore ideas of Indigenous sovereignty, self-determination, relationality, rematriation and futurism.

“I see this photograph and I know that our cultures are alive, our societies are rematriating, and our futures are Indigenous.”

Teexeeshe’ and Chvski’s mother, Marva, told Wilbur: “These acts of connection are healing for all of us, so when we reinstate these ceremonies, it's very powerful in self-love, self-respect, and honoring these roles of practice.”


Brian Adams, Inupiaq

Brian Adams wants his children, Ellis and Elliott, to be proud of their family history and heritage. Having grown up with his brother as the only Inupiaq children in his hometown, Adams often tried to ignore the jokes he heard about Alaskan Native Americans, mentioning he was “not encouraged to be proud of our people.”

Adams wants to use his photos to dismantle not only stereotypes about Native Americans but educate those who may have been discouraged to learn more about their heritage based on American social norms.

“I grew up disconnected from my culture, and I feel grateful that I was able to connect to my culture as I got older, which for me, came through photography,” Adams says. “I try to expand views of Native American identity by resisting mythologizing Native American people, which anyone, even Indigenous people, can do if we aren't careful.”

His children’s mother is white, but Adams wants to make sure they understand their ancestry, heritage and the traumatic history that comes with that.

“I had a white mother and so do my children but understanding that Indigenous people have experienced forced assimilation and that to then accuse someone of ‘not being Native enough,’ based on that visceral premise, is just another part of colonization and is important in understanding why blood quantum is problematic too.”

Russel Daniels, Diné & Ho-Chunk

Russel Daniels feels a deep connection to his work highlighting the legacy of enslaved Native Americans in North America. Through decades of research, Daniels has uncovered his own family history as well as that of others he’s met along the journey.

“On my paternal side, we are descendants of a female Diné captive named Rose, stolen in a raid by Ute, trafficked north into what became Utah Territory, and legally sold to a polygamist Mormon settler, Aaron Daniels, in the mid-1800s,” Daniels says.

He photographed Moises Gonzales, who is a descendant of a Genízaro family from the Cañon de Carnué Land Grant settlement east of Albuquerque, New Mexico established in 1763. According to Daniels’ research, Genízaro is the colonial era caste name given to enslaved and Christianized Native Americans trafficked into Spanish settlements.

“Like other Carnué Genízaros, Gonzales visits and prays at Cerrito de Santa Cruz on the Cañon de Carnué Land Gran,” Daniels says. “They come for the view of setting sun over Albuquerque, the city once protected by their land grant community.”

Tahila Mintz, Yaqui

Mamita Augustina Misak is the healer of her community. She responds to house calls when people are ill as a traditional midwife. She carries plants in small bags, collected for the people she visits. Photographer Tahila Mintz respects Mamita Augustina greatly, as well as the community she supports.

“This image is of reverence for who she is and the medicine she carries as a traditional midwife,” Mintz says, “the honor, respect and love she holds for the plants, and the importance of water, which is woven into her traditional clothing.”

While highlighting the importance of elders like Mamita Augustina, Mintz believes she plays a major role in telling traditional stories of people like this healer.

I make images to nurture the remembering of knowledge that has been unraveled by colonial intervention and to dismantle the patriarchal paradigm,” Mintz says. “In these teachings and reconnection to our roots as earth beings there is an opportunity for physical, mental, and spiritual healing for all people. I am an ancestral scribe, with a camera as my tool of mark.”

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has previously funded the work of these photographers. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers working to inspire, educate, and better understand human history and cultures.

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