The 400 Years Project celebrates Indigenous photographers

MODERN TRADITION: Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians woodcarver Monk Walkingstick adds the finishing details to a butternut woodcarving from his backyard on the Qualla Boundary in October 2020. The image is one of many Indigenous works in The 400 Years Project. Photo by Madison Hye Long

For many young Americans across generations, an introduction to Indigenous history often begins with the landing of the Mayflower on Plymouth Rock in 1620. According to the tale, the Pilgrims and Indians formed initial bonds over a meal of thanksgiving.

“But the stories of flourishing friendships and untouched wilderness are told through the lens of settlers and are harmful myths,” says Sarah Stacke, a Brooklyn-based photojournalist and archive investigator. “[Christopher] Columbus landed in 1492 carrying disease, death, enslavement and displacement. By 1650 — just 30 years after the Mayflower — an estimated 90% of Native people had died from European diseases.”

In 2020, using the Mayflower’s 400-year anniversary as inspiration, Stacke helped launch The 400 Years Project to create an online platform that provides a narrative of Native empowerment, while recognizing the devastating effects of colonization.  Cherokee-based Winnebago/Irish/Norwegian bead artist Sheena Brings Plenty and Anchorage, Alaska-based photographer Brian Adams were also involved in the initial launch and remain active in the ongoing project.

Today, the three continue to seek work by Native photographers from across the medium’s history as they build on an already rich digital library of photo essays. And if the founders’ recent efforts in Cherokee are any indication, the project will continue to flourish.

Firm foundation

Over a decade ago, Stacke began working on a photography series in Cherokee about the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ reclamation of stolen lands. In December 2020, National Geographic published her work as a photo essay, “‘Our DNA is of This Land’: The Cherokee Quest to Reclaim Stolen Territory.” Sheyashe Littledave wrote the text for the article based on Stacke’s reporting.

“While spending time in Cherokee, I have met many incredible people,” says Stacke, who is white. “As a photographer, storyteller and human, I am constantly learning, and I have the people who share their lives with me to thank for that.”

One of those key individuals is Brings Plenty, who also helps her photojournalist husband, Scott, create, edit and post content to the website and social media channels for Cherokee One Feather, the official media outlet of the EBCI.

“As a bead artist and in working with my husband at the newspaper, I have had the opportunity to work with and be around many different tribes and Native communities,” Brings Plenty says. “The connections and friendships we’ve all made have helped us to create a strong network of photographers and collaborators.”

Brings Plenty’s established network made her a powerful third partner as Stacke launched The 400 Years Project with Adams, an Inuit photographer specializing in environmental portraiture. Though Stacke is not Native American, her work has largely consisted of long-term projects created in dialogue with underrepresented people and communities, and this latest endeavor and its ties to Western North Carolina fit right in with that ethos.

“Working in Cherokee was also instrumental in building 400 Years because I was introduced to many, many talented EBCI photographers,” she says. “It’s critical that there are platforms that not only uplift the work of Native photographers, but also create opportunities.”

Tribal call

Along with helping storytellers document their own communities and providing avenues for the stories to reach broad audiences, the goal of The 400 Years Project is to create a groundbreaking pictorial collection of Native America by Native artists.

“We certainly want the opportunities and visibility generated by 400 Years to contribute to a more equitable media industry,” Stacke says.

“We’re committed to contributing to an understanding that cameras have been in the hands of Native photographers since the invention of the medium, and Native people have incorporated photography into their lifeways since the 1800s, both as patrons and creators,” Stacke continues. “The history of photography — and North America — is incomplete without their critical work and perspectives.”

Still, Stacke describes launching The 400 Years Project as “a herculean effort” that wouldn’t have been possible without aid from its early funders, including Old Dominion University and the Anchorage Museum. Securing funding to commission more photo and text essays remains a challenge, and the founders’ priority of paying the authors, photographers and photo editors for commissioned and licensed work means Stacke, Brings Plenty and Adams have yet to pay themselves for their contributions. But thanks to the many gestures of support they’ve received over the past two years, they’re optimistic that day will eventually arrive.

“400 Years has been invited to speak at several venues, including universities, photography summits and organizations interested in archives,” Stacke says. “We’ve gotten a number of emails from people who are using the platform as a resource for research or have questions about where to find more information. Our Instagram community has also grown tremendously in recent months, and we increasingly see the work of 400 Years contributors in major publications, which is awesome.”

Boundless potential

Though The 400 Years Project founders are spread out across the U.S., they’ve been able to meet via Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. And more recently, during a May 14 event at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, Stacke and Brings Plenty finally got to reconvene in person. There, the two shared historical images from Native American photographers, along with photos by contemporary EBCI artists. Both organizers considered the event a great success, thanks to an engaged audience who asked numerous questions and contributed in other important ways.

“During our presentation, one of the people in attendance was able to identify three people in a photo by one of the historical EBCI photographers,” Brings Plenty says. “This information, in addition to the work of contemporary EBCI photographers, helps to deepen the information and archive that the museum holds.”

She adds that “the search has really just begun” for finding Indigenous photographers, past and present, and feels confident that connections she, Stacke and Adams have made with people at institutions across the country will generate future collaborations. Though the organizers don’t currently have plans for another event in North Carolina, they’re setting up events in Oklahoma and New York, and also hope to do the same in Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana.

“We’re hopeful the word about our work will spread and folks will contact us about collections of photography,” Stacke says. “We’re waiting for that call from someone who says, ‘My grandma took hundreds of pictures and I have them all here in a photo album.’ There is without question a rich history of Native photographers in family, local, regional and national archives to be uncovered and made known.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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