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.