Over a decade ago, Berlin-based photographer Maria Sturm was chatting to her stepfather, who was living in the USA. The conversation turned to his friend Jay – a fair-haired, blue-eyed member of the Monacan Native American tribe in Virginia, which at that stage as her father explained, was “unrecognised” by the United States’ federal government. Afterwards, as Sturm replayed the conversation in her head, she couldn’t stop thinking about that small detail.
“I just stumbled over this word – I literally stumbled” Sturm recalls. “To my limited knowledge, I was like: ‘If there are Native American, indigenous people in the US, how can they be unrecognised? What does that even mean?’
While the Monacan tribe gained federal recognition in 2018, Jay’s described appearance would also gave her food for thought. “He told me that Jay had blonde hair and blue eyes,” she continues. “I was like: ‘Why?’ In the back of my head, I had this stereotype that I wasn’t even aware of – and I just realised that I had never met a Native American person in my life.”
Six months later, in a search to challenge those imagined stereotypes, Sturm travelled to Pembroke, North Carolina – a small town in Robeson County situated roughly in the middle of the state’s capital Charlotte and the southeast coast of the USA. It’s the home of another Native American tribe that remains unrecognised to this day – the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina – despite its many attempts to gain official status.
According to the 2000 Census, 89 per cent of Pembroke’s population identified as part of the Lumbee Tribe, and Maria immediately felt their overwhelming presence. “What I noticed and what I found remarkable was that there were many signifiers of Native American [identity] – on the streets, on people’s bodies, their clothing,” she says. “Some are Pan Native – there were many people with dreamcatcher tattoos, which is from the Ojibwe tribe but Europeans and other people can identify [with]. Sometimes there were Native American patterns on the walls, chiefs with headdresses – stuff like that was omnipresent, it was everywhere.”
Since then, Sturm has regularly been returning to the town, where she has become close friends with many in the community, who invited her into their homes to document their lives and town. Now, a selection of photographs from that body of work is presented in her new monograph You Don’t Look Native to Me – an intimate, up-close-and-personal look at the lives of the Lumbee people.
“The Lumbee people are on the East Coast so they had been in touch with Europeans for much longer [compared to tribes in other parts of the USA], plus they are in the southeast, so they were in the segregated south,” Sturm explains. “So this leads to assimilation, language lost and history lost, because you forget your ancestral language and you stop doing rituals that are important to your culture out of fear, plus the fact that it was actually a threat to your life to play out those kinds of things.”
But the merging of cultures and bloodlines also means that many of the Lumbee tribe mostly don’t fit the typical image of a Native American, as many other indigenous people across the continent do not either. The book’s title You Don’t Look Native to Me, is a nod to that fluid identity – a phrase that Lumbee people are accustomed to hearing whenever they leave their small town.
“Many people have green eyes, there are people who pass as Latinx, people who pass as Black, people who pass as white, and of course people who look more Native American,” explains Sturm. “Some have tried to leave and find opportunities elsewhere, but once they left this microcosm [they found it] hard to exist in other places because so often people are like: ‘Hey, where are you from? Where are you really from? You don’t look that way.’ And not having to explain yourself in that community is something that was missed by many.”
It’s that community spirit that makes Pembroke so important for the Lumbee people though the town is a tough place to live. 2021 figures put the median household income at $21,786, while 44 per cent of people living there were below the poverty line, making it one of the poorest in North Carolina. On top of this, being Native American is difficult – across the country those from the community are far more likely to be in poverty and suffer from mental health disorders during their life. Taking pride in their heritage, while being surrounded by others who do so, gives them a sense of belonging despite the generational traumas.
The feeling is perhaps best summed up by Kaya Littletrutle – a local who teaches cultural Native American lessons to young people in the town. In an interview with Sturm, he explains the importance of reengaging with their ethnic and cultural identities for them. “It’s not that the Lumbees and the Natives here lack languages or lack dances and cultural ways – it’s not that it doesn’t exist, it’s just been dormant and now it’s waking up,” he told her. “The Lumbees have so much of it – it’s been clustered for so long, it’s like stuck and congested so now we’ve been working on getting it uncongested.
“What you’re seeing now is that a lot of our young people are picking it up – what I see happening in the next 20 and 30 and 40 years for my different generations to go forward is that our identities is going to be strengthened here,” he continued. “Our culture and out songs, our dances, our indigenous languages, and things like that is a way of empowerment for our people. I guarantee the pictures that you would take then would be different to the pictures you took right now.”