When photographer Kiliii Yüyan first saw the sun setting over the red rock formations in Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii, or Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, which straddles both Utah and Arizona, he knew it was the perfect backdrop for a powerful portrait of international model Quannah Rose Chasinghorse, featured on the cover of this month’s issue of National Geographic.
Yüyan is an award-winning photographer of Nanai/Hèzhé ancestry who specializes in exploring human relationships to nature, especially in Indigenous communities. For the July cover story, he was tasked with capturing the essence of a complex term: Native sovereignty. And Chasinghorse, an Indigenous model and activist known for using her platform to support sovereignty and sustainability, was an ideal subject.
We spoke to Yüyan and Chasinghorse about how they captured the cover image—and what sovereignty means to them.
What’s the story behind the cover?
This month’s cover story dives into the many layers of the push for Native American sovereignty. Native sovereignty can mean many things to many people, but to most Native people, it’s a matter of being autonomous and being able to fully submerge themselves in their own long-standing cultures. That includes—but is not limited to—freely speaking Indigenous languages, caring for ancestral land and resources, and advocating and ultimately regrowing as a community.
“Sovereignty is the freedom to be yourself,” says Yüyan. He adds that the story is about Native Americans as the drivers of their own destinies rather than as victims—and it also shines a spotlight on the long history of disenfranchisement of Native communities in North America and the degradation of their lands.
The cover image of Chasinghorse departs from the old narrative that depicts Indigenous people as victims, Yüyan says.
“You’re saying, ‘Here we are, having a great time living our lives and just being able to be free,’” he says.
For Chasinghorse, who is Hän Gwich’in and Sicangu-Oglala Lakota, it was an opportunity to break out of the “stereotypical box” that she says colonialism had created for Native people, who often are represented through imagery that depicts them as stoic and stern—minimizing the breadth of their experiences. “When I am able to be more soft, I can show my Indigenous joy,” she says.
The bigger message that Chasinghorse wants readers to take away is that Indigenous people are constantly walking between two worlds. The traditional way of life, involving Native culture, people, and community, is a vital part of their identity, she says.
“We can’t uphold those stereotypes,” she says. ”That’s just not who we are.”
What’s featured on the cover?
When Chasinghorse was asked to join the project, she was ecstatic not just to represent her people but also to work with a magazine she had grown up reading.
“I never thought once in my lifetime I would have an opportunity to be on the cover of National Geographic. That’s insane,” Chasinghorse said. “To land the cover is beyond what I could have ever imagined. I cried.”
As a model, Chasinghorse knew it was important to intentionally and meticulously choose her clothing for the cover shoot. She settled on a skirt covered in archival sketches drawn by homesick Indigenous students at boarding schools, where they were forced to assimilate into white culture. She explains this choice was intended to show a moment of strength—how the children held on to their traditional cultures.
“We’re so focused on the things that hurt our people that we forget to take a step back and look at the bigger picture and recognize that we have so much true Indigenous joy. We have our humor; it’s a way of healing,” Chasinghorse says. “Laughing and sharing stories—there’s so much power with that.”
She also wore animal-themed jewelry representing her connection to nature and a “grandma” or kokum scarf, ornately decorated with flowers and popular among Indigenous elders who typically wear them for community gatherings. Her sustainably made fur jacket signifies her heritage in a nod to fur trapping, a centuries-old way of life for North American Native communities.
The site of the cover shoot was an Arizona valley boasting sandstone structures that tower up to a thousand feet in an otherwise flat expanse.
Chasinghorse was born on Navajo land, where Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii is located. Returning to a place she considers home was grounding, powerful, and beautiful, she says.
The park is also home to many Indigenous people—which Yüyan says adds deeper meaning to the statement “We are here.” He notes the Navajo people keep a pact to take care of this land.
WHAT'S INSIDE THE ISSUE
Yüyan tells us his next big project focuses on stewardship of the land, with an emphasis on global Indigenous peoples. There are not many stories on this topic that get a lot of attention, he says.
“I spend my time inside of [the] Native community,” he adds. “That’s where I’m grounded.”
Several new projects are in the works for Chasinghorse. The film Walking Two Worlds recently premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Festival. It highlights Chasinghorse and her mother, Jody Potts-Joseph, as they defend their sacred homelands and way of life while breaking barriers in Indigenous representation.