It’s Personal: Zoe Marieh Urness and Keeping the Traditions Alive

In this new series, we talk to artists and designers about their most personal works and the projects that are closest to their hearts.

How does an aspiring fashion photographer who shoots Santa photos at Nordstrom transition to award-winning fine art photographer in just five years? For Santa Fe–based Zoe Marieh Urness, the journey has been a storied one. Since April of this year, Urness, who is Tlingit and Cherokee, has been traveling the western United States, shooting the ceremonies, dances and regalia of Native Americans for her ambitious photo series, Native Americans: Keeping the Traditions Alive. Using her art to help preserve the traditions of indigenous people, she produces photos that serve to connect the old ways to the modern-day realities of the Native world.

The importance of passing on tradition through storytelling, dance and song is deeply ingrained in Native American life, and Urness has managed to not only participate in this sacred heritage in a stylish and contemporary manner, but through her diligent documentation is sharing the ways of those whom she honors with a wider audience. Gaining traction largely through word of mouth, the series has grown organically and exponentially as one subject leads Urness to the next, and what began as a solitary endeavor has blossomed into a communal effort, unconstrained by tribe or borders.

We spoke with Urness about Keeping the Traditions Alive to get a deeper sense of the adventures she’s encountered, as well as how this endeavor has impacted her personally.


THE THREAD: First for some history, how did this project first begin?
When I graduated college in 2008, I decided that I wanted to do something that ultimately comes from the heart, and for me that was being Native and taking pictures of Native Americans and landscapes. The first person I called, the first subject of the photographs was Gene Tagaban, and I envisioned him in his raven regalia. I had been in a Native American dance group with him since I was four, and it was only natural that I would think of him first because not many people have that kind of regalia. Not many people would even know of someone like that. I had had that vision with him back in 2008, and around Halloween last year, I wanted to redo it because I hadn’t shot it in film and so long ago. I had seen those stumps on I-90 and I’d wanted him there for so long, and it just came together so perfectly. I reshot the photo, and it is my number one seller. People are most magnetically drawn to that one, the most interested. They look at it and go, ‘Oh my God, tell me more.’ He was the first phone call placed for the project and today he’s still the most intriguing subject of them all.

Tell us about one of the most meaningful or insightful exchanges that’s occurred during one of your shoots.
While I was in Alaska, I had my tent for camping and we got totally rained out. We had seen this guy, Wayne Price, the day before and he goes ‘Come by in the morning for a cup of coffee,’ so we show up at like 7am because of the rain. He says, ‘Dry your tent out on the porch.’ He had no intention of letting us go back out there camping again. He was very humble about the fact that he was going to end up giving us his spot later on. He had another wing of his house with an apartment and we ended up staying with him and having a chili night and the whole community came with goat stew. He had a dugout canoe that he had just finished with all the kids in the community. He had been teaching them old traditions, the old carving—not only carving the dugout but also carving the masts and headdresses, which are a big deal with the Tlingit art culture and art traditions. The place where I was photographing was in front of his house, so everyone would show up at the house and we would do shoots from there. It just became a really beautiful community thing. It brings people together. I wanted to give back to him after he’d shared so much with me and given me so much. He’s Tlingit like me and just being with him, that’s like an uncle. It’s such a warm, welcome feeling and that means a lot to me, having him step up like he did.

There was also this family…I ended up going to ride 26 miles across the Badlands on horseback. My point of contact was this lady named Maria. We camped out in the middle of nowhere with all these people I’d never met before from the Pine Ridge Reservation. Maria has four daughters, one of whom I photographed, and it’s one of my new favorite photos. Her little girls were so sweet. There was this one little girl and we both coincidentally had braids and we both had headbands and both had cowboy boots on and she was like my shadow. One day the oldest daughter and dad were on horseback riding up to the top of the hill where we were doing our photo shoot and the girls had these little butterfly wings on and they all went running up the hill in their butterfly wings. It was the cutest thing, having those little girls so enamored by me, but I was enamored by them! They were all so different and so loving and to see the way they lived and the connection between them…I can’t wait to see them grow. I bonded with them like an aunt would. They’re not my tribe and I don’t know much about tribes other than my own, besides what they share with me and what I’m learning along the way. The way that I just became part of their family and the connection and the bond with those four girls was really touching.

Really, it’s just the hospitality. There has been so much giving and hospitality across everywhere that I have photographed and where I’ve lived. It’s almost like I’ve become family immediately. It’s different. They’ve opened up their homes and their families and their heart, without really asking for anything in return. It’s been really powerful that people are so willing to trust me with this. That’s what’s meaningful to me, is the trust.

Tell us about some of the ceremonies you’ve attended for this project. Which one was the most impactful to you personally, and for what reasons?
Celebration happens in Juneau, Alaska, every two years, and I had performed in and participated in it since I was a child. This is something that my family would all do—we would practice our songs and dances and all the dance groups from all over would come congregate at this big convention center and everybody has their performance times and there’s ceremonies and things in between, recognizing different families and stuff like that. To have grown up there and to have been a part of this as a dancer and a performer, but then now merging into where I’m a photographer working for myself for this project, I wanted to be accepted by the Native community. It was really awesome to have full access. They announced my project on stage, and they let me be a part of it all with my camera. I was right there on the front lines and photographing a lot of the really sacred dances that took place over three days.

I spoke to the event organizers about the clan leaders, and they helped me get a picture of them. These guys are never going to be in the same spot again. Most of them are elders—who knows if they’re going to make it to the next one two years from now? And so this photo that I have, it was so special to be able to photograph that group of people who are the cultural bearers, the language holders, the ones that have the history. To have them all congregated together in one group in that photo that I got to collect, I don’t think we’ll have that group together again. It’s so historical and I respect these guys so much. That really meant a lot to me, and I know it will as time goes on. It was really incredible.

What has been the greatest challenge this project has presented?
Funding. My travel expenses were really slim and I had hardly anything to work with, but I made it happen. I had never done a Kickstarter, I didn’t even know what it was. That was actually a twist of fate, where somebody who has no clue what they’re doing got that amount of money. Thank God that people were hospitable and traveling on a ferry system to get from village to village wasn’t outrageous. It’s all self-funded right now, so getting that funding has probably been the hardest part, and that still has been miraculous. Even with it being the biggest challenge, it’s also been not that big of a setback because I’ve had so many blessings. I really don’t have many complaints as far as setbacks. Being that my photos kind of speak for themselves, once people see what I’ve already done, as far as getting subjects to cooperate or to want their photos taken, there’s no problem there because they hear through word of mouth or they see the photos and then they trust me. I’m not getting into any conflicts with invading on their sacred land. I’m sure something could come up at some point—I’ve heard stories about shooting on reservations where someone might see you and you have your camera out, and you could run into some problems. Fortunately, so far I’ve gotten in with the right circles. There are things that could have happened, but so far I feel like it’s been a blessed and granted journey. I’m very fortunate and lucky with that, and I take it very seriously.

In what ways has this project changed you?
Traveling to Alaska, I ended up going to Sitka. Later I found out that’s where my bloodline, my house is from and my relatives are buried there and that’s really where my roots come from. There was this place called Totem Park that has all these totem poles and these big trees and it’s a huge park. At this point I had been traveling Alaska for over a month and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t found an eagle feather. They’re like everywhere, but I couldn’t find one and I was like, what’s going on here?! Naturally, when I go to Totem Park, there was this trail of these baby feathers, the really small, fluffy ones, and it trailed off into this big wide opening to this totem pole. There’s this little trail that went all the way across and over underneath this bench and I found my first eagle feather right there in this big opening. Then I circled the totem pole in the underbrush and found three other feathers, so essentially around this big totem pole in the center of the park I found four eagle feathers, which is symbolic to have things in fours (the four directions). To find them where my family is from made me realize how strong your destiny is and your spirituality and your roots. It made me feel like my ancestors are really, truly watching over me and paying attention and blessing me and expecting things from me. There’s this strong connection, and to realize that was the most powerful thing, to feel that honor and a sense of duty as well. I had always felt it, but I know it now.

All images provided by Zoe Marieh Urness.