Native Americans are recasting views of indigenous life

By countering the racist fixations that have plagued stories of Indian culture, they hope to reverse the “invisibility” that many feel.

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Photograph by JOSUÉ RIVAS
Tribal affiliation: Mexica and Otomi Protesters fighting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline leave the Oceti Sakowin camp near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation after an order from law enforcement in February 2017. Photographer Josué Rivas founded the Standing Strong Project, which explores indigenous identity, sovereignty, and resilience. Activism over the pipeline helped inspire many American Indian political candidates to run for public office in 2018.
This story appears in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Reclaiming Our Stories

Native American photographers are pushing back against portrayals of their culture by non-natives, capturing scenes that reflect alternative views of indigenous life.

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Photo illustration by CARA ROMERO

Tribal affiliation: Chemehuevi In this staged photograph, Cara Romero has added red lighting and stars in the sky to reflect her view of the supernatural in daily life. Derek No-Sun Brown, a Shoshone-Bannock and Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, is Coyote, a Native American trickster. He poses, along with Dina DeVore (left), a Jemez and Kewa Pueblo, and Kaa Folwell, a Santa Clara Pueblo, in front of Saints and Sinners tavern in downtown Española, New Mexico, to show the connection between modern and traditional Native American experiences.

Madeline Sayet grew up on native land in southern Connecticut, where Mohegans have lived for thousands of years.

The daughter of a tribal historian and a defense lawyer, she heard tales of Chahnameed, a Mohegan trickster character. When she turned seven, her grandfather gave her Shakespeare’s complete works for her birthday. “Almost as early as I had traditional native stories, I also had Shakespeare,” Sayet says, recalling her earliest encounters with the bard.

Sayet was 14 when she first acted in a Shakespeare play, appearing as Iris in The Tempest. Later she was in a production of Macbeth and played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Now, at 28, she’s directing productions of everything from classics by Shakespeare and operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Claudio Monteverdi to the work of William S. Yellow Robe, Jr., an Assiniboine playwright widely viewed as a pioneer in American Indian theater. Sayet’s goal: to lift native voices in theater and incorporate indigenous and Mohegan worldviews into her work. She has become one of the country’s most sought-after artistic directors and has received dozens of awards and accolades. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have praised her work, which the Journal called “enchanting.”

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From performing a one-woman show in London to directing a play in Arkansas about the Dakota Access Pipeline, playwright, actor, and director Madeline Sayet challenges the invisibility and stereotypes indigenous people have had to endure. She hopes new, authentic Native American narratives can take root.

Yet Sayet, like many other Native Americans, says she often feels frustrated by efforts to erase or ignore indigenous people.

It’s a common theme among the 5.6 million Native Americans in the United States. American Indians represent 573 federally recognized tribes. More than 70 percent live not on reservations but in urban areas. Many are active in civic life; this fall, more than a hundred Native Americans, a record number, ran for public office at the state and federal level. Two candidates from New Mexico, Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo, and Yvette Herrell, a Cherokee, along with Kansas’ Sharice Davids, of the Ho-Chunk Nation, sought to become the first indigenous women elected to the U.S. Congress—and both Haaland and Davids won.

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Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo, is among more than a hundred Native Americans who ran for state or federal office in 2018. On November 6 New Mexico's Haaland and Kansas' Sharice Davids became the first two American Indian women elected to the U.S. Congress. Two Native American men, both Republicans from Oklahoma, serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Inside Deb Haaland’s historic bid to become one of the first Native congresswomen For centuries, Native communities have fought disenfranchisement and marginalization. Now, Haaland will join another Native woman in U.S. Congress after a groundbreaking election.

Even so, most of today’s narratives about indigenous Americans are cast through a negative lens, focusing on health disparities, economic disadvantages, poverty, or addiction, according to the First Nations Development Institute, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the economies of native communities.

“There’s a real invisibility when it comes to Indian people,” says Michael Roberts, a Tlingit who leads the Colorado-based institute. “We don’t show up in the media, we don’t show up in textbooks, we don’t show up in everyday conversation. Folks don’t know Indians or anything about Indians.”

Yet signs of indigenous culture—and how Native Americans have helped shape the nation’s history—are everywhere. Thousands of U.S. communities, schools, parks, streets, and waterways have names derived from Native American words. Images of American Indians—some flattering, many buffoonishly racist—have been used to sell cars, motorcycles, toys, hotel rooms, tobacco, and other goods. They still adorn the uniforms of some sports teams. The images are ubiquitous; the people they represent often forgotten.

But increasingly, Sayet and other American Indians are offering a counterview of indigenous culture and what it means to live in a country where the experiences of native people are often marginalized, distorted, or excluded.

Sayet is careful about what projects she chooses to direct, rejecting proposals that lean on stereotypes.

“I’ve said no to a lot of versions of Last of the Mohicans,” Sayet says, referring to productions of the 1826 novel by James Fenimore Cooper. The story takes place during the French and Indian War, as France and Great Britain fought for control of North American lands where indigenous people had lived for thousands of years. It’s seen by many as playing into various stereotypes—including the notion that Indians who cooperated with the British were good and noble, while those who did not were bloodthirsty savages. Sayet also rejects projects that involve using “red face” so that non-native actors can play native people.

“You don’t even really get to begin to tell your story until you’ve dealt with the fact that there’s these weird things walking around as identifiers of native culture,” Sayet says of some popular negative images. “Which is what makes Americans feel like they own native culture in this really twisted way.”

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Gregg Deal, a Pyramid Lake Paiute, uses performance art to challenge misconceptions of Native American identity. He often asks people to confront their misunderstandings and reconsider stereotypes. The handprint on Deal’s face is part of a performance piece, “The Last American Indian on Earth.”

Stories of indigenous history and culture have been around for generations, in the elegant images made on hide calendars or carved into totem poles. Non-natives, however, barely acknowledge our past or our present, ignoring our lives by focusing on dominant, negative stereotypes.

I belong to Indian country, or at the very least, I was born from it. My mother was born in Odessa, Texas, and my father was born in Oklahoma. His mother was Choctaw; his father, Kiowa. In 1975 my father and Sarah Dye, a Shawnee, became the first Native Americans to graduate from Dartmouth College’s medical school. My father was the third generation of college graduates in our family. His father was a teacher, a World War II veteran, and the first Kiowa to graduate from Oklahoma State University. His father, my great-grandfather, attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School and Hampton Institute. My great-great grandfather was one of more than two dozen Kiowa prisoners of war sent to prison in St. Augustine, Florida, at the end of the Red River War of the 1870s as we and other tribes of the Great Plains fought to stop the government’s push to remove us from our traditional territories.

My tribe has always been a nomadic one, from our early days in the north to a “golden age” on the plains in the 1800s, as our Pulitzer Prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday calls it.

Today we remain Kiowa: artists, scholars, historians, lawyers, writers, soldiers, doctors, teachers. The same roles we have always had, before the United States, before the horse, before, before, before.

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A group of archaeology students and professors from Salish Kootenai College in Montana spent three weeks in Glacier National Park. They surveyed scarred trees along the North Fork of the Flathead River with a missing layer of bark, cut away for use as food because of its nutrients and sweet taste.

On a cool summer night in June the London Plane restaurant in Seattle begins to fill with American Indians and others.

They wear patchwork-and-ribbon skirts, Pendleton bomber jackets, silver and turquoise jewelry, quillwork and shell earrings, bolo ties plugged with wampum, and pipe-bone bead necklaces that clink, click, and clack.

They’ve arrived for the $125-a-person dinner, a fund-raiser for the I-Collective, made up of indigenous cooks, activists, herbalists, and knowledge keepers.

“Nawa, akitaaru‘,” says Hillel Echo-Hawk, a noted cook and cohost of the gathering, welcoming the evening’s diners before retreating to the clattering of pots, plates, and silverware to finish her work. Born and raised in the town of Delta Junction, her mother’s hometown in the interior of Alaska, Echo-Hawk grew up in a family that actively hunted and fished.

“It was one of my favorite memories, just being in the kitchen,” she says.

At 14 years old she had her first grand mal seizure. A trip to a Fairbanks neurologist revealed the bad news: Echo-Hawk would never be able to live alone, she would never be able to travel alone, and she would never be able to cook.

“I was crushed,” she says. Six years later, with the right medication and with the seizures under control, Echo-Hawk left first for a brief college stint in Seattle, then for missionary work in New Zealand. She later returned to Seattle to pursue her original dream: culinary school.

Today Echo-Hawk’s catering company, Birch Basket, offers traditional, precolonial meals—free of European foods such as flour, processed sugar, pork, beef, and chicken—while showcasing her deep knowledge of indigenous foods, customs, beliefs, and culinary innovations.

She is one of five chefs and assistants who’ve prepared a traditional meal featuring foods from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The first course is a pickled seaweed with cured salmon roe and smoked seaweed broth. Second course: watercress with salmonberry and cranberry gelée on a swoosh of hazelnut puree, and then, moss-steamed littlenecks.

“This next dish is a cedar-braised caribou,” Echo-Hawk announces to the 50-plus guests as the fourth course makes its way to the tables.

“The caribou was donated by a family friend in Alaska and brought down by my mom, who’s sitting right there.” She nods in the direction of Yvonne Echo-Hawk, her beaming mother.

Within minutes, the plates are empty.

The fifth course, smoked king salmon, is followed by a sixth course, Alaska moose stew. And for dessert, huckleberry and honey sorbet with nine-leaf parsley and alderwood smoked salt.

Echo-Hawk says that non-native diners are often surprised by her cooking, primarily, she says, because they think American Indians have long had rudimentary diets.

“The three sisters [squash, corn, and beans], buffalo, and salmon,” Echo-Hawk says, with a hint of sarcasm. “That’s it. That’s all we had. We didn’t eat anything else. It’s frustrating.”

Echo-Hawk explodes those notions.

With every dish, she tries to explain its ingredients in a way that challenges how others see indigenous people—and that reminds diners that some of the foods on their plates may be unfamiliar because 500 years of colonialism and the decimation of Native American culture made many of those foods “disappear,” she says.

Echo-Hawk acknowledges that for some diners, hearing about genocide and colonization doesn’t sit well, but that understanding indigenous people’s experiences in America requires learning more about certain hard truths.

“People are reluctant to use the word ‘genocide,’ ” says Kim TallBear, an associate professor of native studies at the University of Alberta. “But if you look at the UN definition of genocide, every single federal policy toward native people can come under that.”

The deliberate removal of indigenous peoples in the Americas began shortly after the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Wars, diseases brought by Europeans and others, and government efforts to kill or contain Indians combined to wipe out tens of millions of Native Americans.

One of the last and most notorious Indian massacres in the U.S. occurred in 1890 at Wounded Knee, in what is now South Dakota, when at least 200 Lakota were slaughtered by the Army’s Seventh Cavalry. Members of the regiment were awarded medals of honor for their actions at Wounded Knee.

Beginning in 1879, indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes to be educated and assimilated in boarding schools that required students to give up indigenous culture, language, and even their names.

From 1973 to 1976, more than 3,400 indigenous women in the care of the U.S. Indian Health Service were sterilized without their consent. Many native people assert that the efforts to marginalize them into nonexistence continue. Today, with the government’s support, oil companies are drilling and running pipelines that could endanger tribal water and food supplies.

“Matt, can you go back to ‘Dear Mr. President’ for me?” Madeline Sayet says, halting a rehearsal of Crossing Mnisose, a new play by Cherokee playwright and lawyer Mary Kathryn Nagle that focuses on the Mnisose—also known as the Missouri River—and the story of Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark, and the Dakota Access Pipeline all crossing the river.

Sayet warns actor Matt Cross to not “get ahead of where you are at in the letter. This is your letter. You wrote this letter to the president, so all of your heart is in each of these words.”

In Nagle’s play, a character named Travis, played by Cross, reads a letter about the impending construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to President Barack Obama.

Set in the early 1800s and the 2010s, the play chronicles Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as they “discover” the Mnisose. The play also addresses the recent protests to protect that same river from the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which runs from North Dakota to Illinois. Several tribes say it crosses native burial grounds and threatens water quality.

Cross, a Kiowa actor, has two roles: Coyote, a Dakota tribal member in the 1800s, and Travis, a modern Dakota tribal member and possible reincarnation of Coyote, fighting to protect the river from the pipeline. Next year Crossing Mnisose will have its world premiere at Portland Center Stage in Oregon. For now the cast is rehearsing for the Arkansas New Play Festival.

“Treat it less like it’s a letter you’re reading and more like if you were coming up with the exact, perfect words to say to the president,” Sayet suggests. “They’re coming from you, right in this moment.”

“Dear Mr. President,” Cross says with renewed fervor. “It’s been two years already since I met you during your visit to Standing Rock. When you were here, you sat and listened to what we had to say. You made us feel like we mattered.”

A few hours before another rehearsal, Sayet enjoys a cup of black coffee in downtown Fayetteville, Arkansas, and speaks of the importance of storytelling.

“We all benefit from hearing more kinds of stories,” Sayet says. “More kinds of stories mean we have more potential. We have a greater comprehension for what might be possible, for empathy building and learning and recognizing there are many paths. I am working to dismantle the idea that there is only one Native American narrative by asking questions and bringing people together to interrogate what stories we want to tell.”

The stories and images that have plagued indigenous cultures—including America’s fixation on feathered costumes and reservation life—serve a purpose, Kim TallBear says. They allow Americans to forget their role in genocide.

Those appropriations of our stories, she says, prevent a different story from taking root, one that indigenous people have been telling for centuries: Live in a good way here. Live in a good way with us. Live in a good way with all our other relatives.

“The stories that we tell not only come out of the world that we live in,” TallBear says. They also “help us create, and live, in the world that we want to live in.”

Tristan Ahtone is tribal affairs editor for High Country News and president of the Native American Journalists Association. This is his first feature for National Geographic.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a group of archaeology students and professors surveyed scarred trees along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River; they actually worked along the North Fork of the river.