"You don't look Native": Maria Sturm

Published on 07/29/ 2020

2020 Daylight Photo Award Winner

Maria Sturm


"You don't look Native to me"

"You don‘t look Native to me" is a quote and the title of a body of work, that shows excerpts from the lives of young Native Americans from around Pembroke, Robeson County, North Carolina, where 89% of the city’s population identifies as Native American. The town is the tribal seat of the Lumbee Indian Tribe of North Carolina, the largest state-recognized Native American tribe east of the Mississippi River, which means they are federally unrecognized and therefore have no reservation nor any monetary benefits.

I am tracing their ways of self-representation, transformed through history, questions of identity with which they are confronted on a daily basis, and their reawakening pride in being Native.

The work touches upon the complexity of identity, stereotypical thinking, (in)visibility and identity politics and engages an unfamiliar mix of concepts: a Native American tribe whose members are ignored by the outside world, who do not wear their otherness on their physique, but who are firm in their identity. This raises questions to the viewer regarding one’s own identity and membership to the unspecified mainstream.

"This is a sacred circle of the Lumbee People, kept by the Lumbee Tribal Elders‘ council. We respect this site as we respect christian churches, and we hope you will do the same. Traditional spiritual gatherings are held here four times each year."

This sign was set up at the cultural center in Pembroke, but since the cultural center was cleaned for the first Lumbee Spring Moon Pow Wow in May 2016, the sign was removed. You can see the Lumbee is earsed: Not everyone identifies with that name. Many Tuscarora for example, but other tribes, who fall under the umbrella of the Lumbee.


Pre-Colonization there were several tribes inhabiting the same area, the Cheraw, the Tuscarora, the Haliwa- Saponi, the Cherokees to name a few. You can find three native language families: Algonquian, Siouan and Iroquois, which suggest migration due to wars, climate change etc. All these tribes weren‘t recognized.


Daniel in front of his parents house in St. Pauls, NC. Daniel identifies as Lumbee.

In an attempt to gain federal recognition the Lumbee name was voted for in 1952 (and passed legislation in 1953) to unite all tribes living in and around Robeson County. The idea was to form a conglomerate, so the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) wouldn‘t ignore such a large group of people in their petition for recognition.

The petition failed because the BIA stated the Lumbees exist only since 1953 and therefore it couldn’t be proved they existed before 1492.


Dominique is half Lumbee half Guamanian. She‘s regularly attending the Culture Class and participating in Powwows as a Jingle dancer. Here she is in her house in Red Springs.

Even though the Lumbee name is fairly new, it was voted for in 1952 and passed legislation in 1953, most of the people today only know the Lumbee name.

"It’s not 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, now it’s waking up. It’s not like the Lumbees don’t have it, the Lumbees have so much of it, it’s been clustered for so long over this, it’s like stuck and congested and so now I hear recently we’ve been working on getting it uncongested or decongested so the general public can do it. And so what you’re seeing now it that a lot of our young people are picking it up. And they don’t care if you’re Lumbee or Tuscarora, they’re going to sing and dance with you regardless of the Culture Class that I teach.

I teach it all. I don’t go for the Siouan or Algonquian or Iroquois, I teach everything being all inclusive and that’s the way our people is going to culturally move forward.

Hopefully what I see happening in the next 20 and 30 and 40 years for my grandkids and my child and my different generations to go forward is that our identities is going to be strengthened here and the effects of that in our community is almost going to be like social conditioning. Our culture and our songs, our dances, our indigenous languages and things like that is a way of empowerment for our people. I guarantee you the pictures that you take would be different, then the pictures you took right now."

Kaya Littleturle - excerpt from our conversation on October 28th 2016

Patricia, Mescal and Frankie

Mescal is 19, she has two daughters, Kassidy (4) and Frankie, who‘s just a few months old. Here you see her in the background with Frankie and her cousin Patricia.

Mescal's father Reggie is leading the Culture Class in town, led by The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. Their mission is to inspire youth in Indian Country, through cultural enlightenment, to realize their full potential regardless of their circumstances and to become caring, responsible tribal members.

Reflection #2

Robeson County has a population of 134,576 people with a median age of 35.6 and a median household in- come of $31,298. Robeson county is the poorest and most violent county in North Carolina. Between the 90s and the 2000s most of the industry had left (e.g. Converse in Lumberton, where mostly Lumbee Indians worked).

Robert looking at himself

Traditionally the people of Robeson County were far- mers, they produced tobacco for example, but with globalisation it became cheaper to produce tobacco in China and local farmers couldn‘t compete with the price. People are being thrown back on their own re- sources and are left waiting wondering what to do.

Justin and Tristin 

Justin and Tristin are hanging in a broken car next to Tristins house. There‘s not much to do around Robeson County. It‘s one of Americas most violent counties, located along I-95, which is also a historic drug route connecting Miami and New York.

Jon-Morgan, Tristin, Stevie, Justin and Jacobi are taking a selfie at Culture Class. 

Social media plays a big role in Native identity today. Hashtags like #lumbeepride, #nativeboy or #nativestrong are very popular. The Lumbee pride is also particularly stemming from the story of Henry Berry Lowery. It is said that Henry Berry was hiding in the swamps when he led the resistance in North Carolina during the American Civil War. He is remembered as a Robin Hood figure, especially for the Tuscarora and Lumbee people, who consider him one of their tribe and a pioneer in the fight for their civil rights, personal freedom, and tribal self-determination.


Riley is a jingle dancer and regular attendant of the various Culture Classes there are in the area. She won a beauty pegeant and was Miss NC Queen of Hope. Pageants are popular among Native women and there are a few pageant competitions. In 2017 a Lumbee woman, Kayla Oxendine won the title of Miss Indian North Carolina.


Manny at the Running Waters Powwow in Fayetteville. He dentifies as Lumbee. He‘s a fancy dancer and he‘s dancing with his bandana covering half his face like this. Many Natives compete in dancing or drumming competitions also as a possibility to earn money.

His uncle Nakoma started a Culture Class in Cumberland County and Manny is attending regularly playing the drums and singing, dancing and teaching as well.

There are more Culture Classes popping up now, which is hopeful to see because tribes in the Southeast who have been in contact with Europeans first have lost a lot of their history, not only through assimilation but also through fear, living in the Jim Crow South.

Reggie‘s house

Reggie lives in a house build by the tribal government. He lives together with his daughter Mescal and his two granddaughters Kassidy and Frankie. You can see Frankies crib in the corner, a picture of Edward S. Curtis and a christian cross.

Kearsey as a vampire (Tuscarora Nation of NC)

I met Kearsey and her mother Tamra at the Running Waters Pow Wow in Fayetteville on Halloween Eve. Kearsey identifies as Tuscarora.

The Tuscarora officially fall under the umbrella of the Lumbee. Many Tuscarora don’t identify with the Lumbee name. Many Tribes, recognized or unrecognized have prejudices against the Lumbee. They say for example the Lumbee have lost their history and they don't have a very strict enrollment policy (in comparison to the Tuscarora, where you'd have to proof 1/4 of bloodline being Native in order to be enrolled).

Kearsey and Tamra were dancing among the Lumbee and are setting a hopeful example for these inner tribal conflicts.

Manny and Courtney

Manny and Courtney are sitting in Manny's car in front of his uncle Nakoma's house, where Manny is living.

Nakoma started a Culture Class in Cumberland County and Manny is attending regularly playing the drums and singing, dancing and teaching as well.

The culture classes have gained a lot of growth over the past years. It‘s so dangerous outside and there‘s not much else to do besides going to church, so the teenagers are embracing the new infrastructure the culture class is offering them.

Makael holding the NC flag

Makael is holding the North Carolina flag at the old Converse plant, where his grandmother used to work among many Natives until they shut down the plant in 2001. He often gets to hear „You don‘t look Native to me“

Adrian holding my hand

This is Adrian holding my hand. He was happy we took this picture, because he could show this image to the police after being robbed of his rings and cash. Adrian identifies as Lumbee. For some of the people all they know of their native identity goes back to popcultural symbols or pan-native symbols, because often that’s all people have learned, through TV and media. 

Adrian was wearing his Indian chief ring with pride. His identity actually manifests in symbols like this.

Maria Sturm

Maria Sturm has photographed the Lumbee since 2011. She was born 1985 in Romania and studied photography at the University of Applied Sciences Bielefeld, Germany and at the Rhode Island School of Design as a Fulbright and DAAD scholar. She is part of Women Photograph and the artist collective Apparat. A central theme of her work is youth in the context of globalization and her conceptual approach offers glimpses into knowledge from a variety of disciplines: history, sociology, mythology. Maria’s has been awarded and exhibited internationally, including Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Addis Foto Fest, 72 Gallery Tokyo and Aperture Foundation. Publications include The British Journal of Photography, How We See: Photobooks made by Women, Colors Magazine, Paper Journal, Vice and Photograph Magazine. Next to her personal work, she is working on assignment and as an educator.