Like all minorities, the stereotypes associated with Native Americans have been moulded through pop culture and racist anthropology for generations. Offensive visuals remain canonized, not only in the minds of Americans, but in the minds of people all over the world. But for citizens of Pembroke, a town in North Carolina’s Robeson County, a culture of difference in appearance is embraced and normalized. As the seat of the federally-recognized Lumbee tribe, 89% of the city’s population identifies as Native American, despite the variation in their visual appearances. Unlike most other Native American tribes across the USA, the citizens of Robeson County were never forced to move, forming an incredibly strong bond with their region and place.

Since 2011, photographer Maria Sturm has documented the people of Pembroke. Here, identity doesn’t have to do with how you look. Instead, it comes from a deeper understanding of lineage and history. As a storyteller, Sturm is primarily interested in the youth of Pembroke, who are in the throes of constructing their own path to self-definition. Her resulting series, “You don’t look Native to me”, is an investigation into our antiquated criteria for constructing identity. In Sturm’s photographs of people, places and interiors, she works to unravel our misconceptions of Native American identity in particular, questioning how we absorb stereotypes as fact.

In this interview, Sturm speaks to LensCulture about how her own childhood inspired this project, the phone call that led to her years-long documentation of Pembroke, and what she hopes her series can teach us about our own internalized bias.

Patricia, Mescal and Frankie. Patricia, Mescal and Frankie in front of their house in Pembroke, NC. All these houses were built by the tribal government. The Lumbee tribe is only recognized by the state of North Carolina. Mescal’s father Reggie leads the culture class in town, teaching them about Native tradition. Mescal is 19, and she has two daughters: Kassidy (4) and Frankie, who’s just a few months old. © Maria Sturm

LensCulture: The stories you pursue for your bodies of work are quite specific. Tell me, what draws you to a particular story? What compels you to communicate a message through photography?

Maria Sturm: All the things I photograph usually come to me through a conversation with someone, or through something I read about or hear about in some other way. But only certain things catch my attention, and I know I need to photograph them when I can’t stop thinking about them. I’m not necessarily interested in spectacular or unseen things. It can be something completely ordinary.

LC: And what’s your preferred process for making images? Is there a particular method you prefer?

MS: I come from practicing analog photography, and started with small format methods until I moved on to medium format. I often photograph people digitally at first to warm them up a little bit, and then once we’re in a groove, I take analog portraits. For my series “You don’t look Native to me”, I wanted to do everything in large format, but that quickly changed once I arrived at my destination. People were calling me up throughout the day and at night to meet them spontaneously, so I needed to move quickly, and large format doesn’t do well in that spontaneity!

Kearsey as a vampire (Tuscarora Tribe of North Carolina). This is Kearsey at a Pow-Wow in Fayetteville, NC. It was Halloween weekend, and I was curious to see the youth trying on different identities. I was happy when I spotted Kearsey with those fangs in contrast to her regalia. Kearsey identifies as Tuscarora.
© Maria Sturm

LC: I was going to say, you can tell that you prioritize photographing people for this project, but you always tend to include a lot of portraiture in your work. Why is this method important to you? What is it about measured, posed portraiture that you think contributes to a story more than something candid?

MS: I think it goes back to my earliest childhood memories. My mother used to work a lot, and for every holiday she and I would go to a new city, and she would always want to go to museums. I was always fascinated by the portraiture in these places—specifically painting. I think this fascination stays with me in my current photographic practice.

LC: How do you approach creating a dynamic between yourself and your subject? You’re telling these interesting stories, but they aren’t necessarily your own. What is important to establish in your relationship to the subject in order to photograph them so intimately and naturally?

MS: I was always a very curious child, and I still ask a lot of questions. These inquiries come from an honest interest in what’s going on around me. I’m not trying to be somebody else, and I think it’s so important to be respectful with your subjects. I’m not a pushy photographer. There are so many images that I do not make. There are many things I see that could make nice photographs, but I have respect for the context. I will never go against that feeling just because I want a shot, and that’s okay. Instead, those moments are things I carry as memories. That image becomes a memory without necessarily having a picture of it.

Robert looking at himself. Traditionally, the people of Robeson County were farmers, and they produced tobacco, for example. But with globalization it became cheaper to produce tobacco in China, and local farmers couldn’t compete with the price. There’s not much to do around Robeson County. It’s one of America’s most violent counties, located along I-95, which is also a historic drug route connecting Miami and New York. People are thrown back on their own resources and are left wondering what to do. © Maria Sturm

LC: I think that’s rare with a lot of documentary photographers, or photographers who prioritize telling a story over the humanity of the subjects in front of their lens. Is there something in particular that influenced that way of working for you?

MS: I think it also goes back to my childhood. I see other people the same way I see myself. Growing up, I immigrated to Germany from Romania, and my mother switched my last name to a German name. She kind of erased all the traces of my Romanian heritage, so that on paper I looked like a German and could blend in. I was five years old when we moved, so when I got to Germany I had a strong accent and looked different than the other students. That experience really influenced the title of this work: “You don’t look Native to me”. People always told me I sounded or looked different when I was young, and I didn’t want to be thought of as the different one. I just wanted to be like everyone else, and this idea of not fitting in has stayed with me, and has also made me sensitive in that photographer-subject dynamic.

As I get older, people still ask me, “Where are you from again?” or “Where are your parents from? You look, I don’t know, Spanish, Brazilian, Italian, or whatever.” In the back of my head, I’m always thinking about what it actually means to look like you’re from a specific place. I think that’s why I’m always interested in stories that are similar to my own. It doesn’t have to be a difference in appearance—it can be a difference in any type of position.

“In the Southeast we’re a matrilineal society. That means we put our women in front of everything, they’re our life-givers. Especially in our Native society, you see displacement, and that‘s how things have just changed. Our women should’ve never gotten to this point, not that it’s their fault, but you know we shouldn’t have let our women get to this point.” Kaya Littleturtle says this while flipping through photos I’ve taken. He’s 24 and leads the Culture Class with Reggie.
© Maria Sturm

LC: Those personal parallels are so important. How did the specific subject matter for “You don’t look Native to me” come about?

MS: It came from a conversation I had with my stepfather. We were speaking on the phone about nothing in particular, and then he started talking to me about a friend of his named Jay, who is a Native American living in North Carolina. He said that Jay had blonde hair and blue eyes, and I questioned why I was so surprised by this information. Where did I absorb the knowledge of what Native American identity looks like? I started thinking about how we absorb these references and solidify tropes. I tried researching unrecognized tribes in America online, but I couldn’t find much.

LC: Where exactly in North Carolina is Jay from?

MS: Jay teaches in Pembroke, and is from an unrecognized tribe that originated in Virginia. Pembroke is the cultural and economic center for the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, which is where I went to make this series. Pembroke has something like three thousand inhabitants—it’s super small.

LC: So you went to Pembroke to see what it was like there for yourself?

MS: Yes! I visited Jay and went to his classes, asking if people wanted to speak with me, show me around or hang out. There were two Native American students in his class who approached me, and one of them—Jonathan Jacobs—was super important for this project. Jonathan was trying to find out more about his identity, so he had many questions himself, and those questions were the same ones I was interested in. He introduced me to so many people, so we hung out a lot and he drove me around. It was such an important bond. I can’t imagine dropping in there by myself and not meeting him.

Daniel. Daniel in front of his parents house in St. Pauls, NC. Daniel identifies as Lumbee. Originally there were several tribes (like the Cheraw, the Tuscarora, the Haliwa-Saponi to name a few) inhabiting the same area. All these tribes weren’t recognized. In an attempt to gain federal recognition, the Lumbee name was voted for in 1952 to unite all tribes living in and around Robeson County, NC.
© Maria Sturm

LC: The project ended up focusing on individuals in their youth, a moment in life that’s often characterized by a search for identity. What interests you about the youth in Pembroke in particular?

MS: I’ve always been interested in photographing youth for most of my projects. I think, like you said, it has to do with identity. It’s this time where you’re constantly thinking—consciously or unconsciously—about your identity and how to present yourself. This has intensified with the rise of social media, which is connected to how you present your identity to the Internet. While I was in Pembroke, I also made lists of hashtags that were being used—on Instagram and other sharing platforms—to codify Native American identity, There’s something very fascinating there, and it’s inherent in people who are younger and haven’t found themselves yet.

LC: So it’s more about a moment of self-exploration, and less about age.

MS: Oh yes. I was 25 when I started this project, and I considered myself to be in my youth at that point. It’s not just when you’re 15. It’s all the people who are searching for somebody to be.

LC: In your artist statement, you mention a “paradoxical otherness”—can you expand on this concept a bit? What do you mean by it?

MS: Today, Native Americans are ‘othered’ as a minority in the United States. But on top of that, this minority is only immediately identifiable by the general population if they resemble a stereotype of what a Native American person looks like. These stereotypes were created to identify them without any explanation. They are ‘othered’ in that way, and yet this stereotype is often far from the truth. Some Native Americans looks more white, and some look more African American, but that doesn’t mean they don’t identify as Native American—so it’s a paradox. Sure, they could walk in the shoes of another identifier that makes them more ‘acceptable’ to society and the broader public, but they identify as something else that isn’t necessarily visible. It shakes up our stereotypes about identity and makes us question why we have them.

Manny at the Pow-Wow in Fayetteville. He’s a fancy dancer and told me he’s dancing with his bandana covering half his face. I’m interested in how much can be deduced about somebody’s identity if you can only see half of him or her. He often hears the phrase “You don’t look Native.” © Maria Sturm

LC: Where do you think that tension is felt most in the citizens of Pembroke?

MS: It goes back to the phrase “You don’t look Native to me.” It’s a code, because once these citizens go outside of the Pembroke microcosm to make it in other industries, they get homesick. In Pembroke, people understand the way you carry yourself. Nobody asks you who you are. It’s not just because it’s small; it’s because the majority of people who live there identify as Native American, whether you look more white or more black—it doesn’t really matter. Once you’re outside of that community, you’re constantly being questioned: “Who are you? Oh, Native? You don’t look it.”

LC: That being said, what do you want your audience to take away from this work? What are the main issues you want them to walk away with and contemplate?

MS: I think that question gets to the heart of why I do what I do. Photography has the power to educate in a way that isn’t so obvious. You learn something that you didn’t know before, and my hope is to create images that somehow contradict our stereotypes about identity, because it doesn’t just apply to Native Americans. Maybe if someone sees this work, they can go out into the world and start questioning the way they learned about other things, and contemplate their own internalized bias. I hope people can walk away from this work questioning themselves, so that in future situations they can re-evaluate what they think they are seeing.