Even at the trendy Native Treasures Indian Arts Festival in May, Zoë Urness stood out: strikingly tall, strong
jawline, cream-colored fedora, hoop nose piercing and a shirt that displayed her
Tlingit Alaskan Native roots. She attracted the attention of fellow
photographers and gallery owners drawn to her traditional images of modern Indigenous leaders set in natural landscapes.
Then Urness showed her
latest photograph, “December 5,
2016/No Spiritual Surrender,” which she captured at the Oceti Sakowin
Camp on Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. The head-on image
centers on a US military veteran wearing a gas mask and clutching an American
flag. Veterans surround him in support of water protectors marching through
blowing snow in protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
In an email, Merleyn Bell, art director at World Literature
Today and host of NPR’s "Race Matters," told Urness she plans on
using the photograph on the cover of the international literary magazine,
before entering it into the running for the Pulitzer Prize.
The magazine recognition is the latest encouragement in
Urness’ long rise. As an Alaskan Tlingit and Cherokee Native American,
she was adopted with her twin sister by her Norwegian great-great uncle and
aunt in Stanwood, Washington. She was introduced to tribal arts and history at
the Alaskan Native American cultural association. At age 7, she received her first
camera from her grandmother, going on to take photographs of sports teams for
her middle school yearbook. She earned art degrees from Skagit Valley College
and the former Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California,
where she laid the groundwork for her identify project. “The camera allowed me
to relate to people,” Urness says. “The subjects were endless and I explored
them through the lens.”
After graduating college, in 2008, Urness freelanced in Santa
Barbara and Seattle before moving to Santa Fe and shooting for Outside
and Trend magazines and photographer Kim Jew, taking portraits of high
school seniors and weddings. In 2014, she created a Kickstarter
project with “an emphasis on the critically endangered languages captured
with video and still imagery.” She gained financial support and visited Alaskan
villages as part of a long-term project photographing various tribes across the
A breakthrough came when she showed her Alaskan work at the Indigenous Fine
Art Market and twice at the Santa Fe Indian Market in 2014—winning three
blue ribbons, including Best in Division and Best in Category. The images were
also recognized by the California-based Autry Museum of the American West, the Art Basel fair in Miami
and the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market in Arizona.
Urness developed “a whole new twist” on photography when she
joined Santa Fe Navajo contemporary artist Tony Abeyta on a road trip to
Standing Rock. They arrived as thousands of Native and non-Native protesters
celebrated the decision from the US Army Corps of Engineers not to grant an
easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline. “I had never been so prepared,” Urness
says. “I went up there not knowing what my role would be. But, as long as my
camera was in my hand, it led me to the right places.”
Earlier this year, Urness questioned whether she could return to
her identify project. “I had been creating a traditional identity project to
find people that felt the same way I did as a Native American,” Urness says.
“But Standing Rock cracked me right open. I bridged the gap between traditional
and contemporary through spirituality.’” Her friend, Navajo artist Lehi Thunder
Voice Eagle, had also witnessed celebrations on Standing Rock and the later
approval of the oil pipeline thanks to the Trump administration. They both
needed “a space for art, music, storytelling” to bring Native artists together
in light of the recent burst of political turmoil.
So, the pair decided to open a gallery—a “cultural hub” for Native
artists, sculptors, jewelers, musicians, fashion designers, tribal and
spiritual leaders, veterans and children looking for creative outlets.
In recent weeks, they
secured the former Blue Rain Gallery location downtown on Lincoln Street. “It’s a resurgence of Natives
selling their own art,” Thunder Voice Eagle says. Newly invested but
determined, Thunder Voice Eagle and Urness are planning a soft opening for
their new space, dubbed ZOHI Gallery, on July 4, before their grand opening set for Indian Market weekend in August.
“It’s not enough to just sell my pieces off the wall anymore,” Urness says. “I
want unity and I want to represent Native artists and bring people together
like Standing Rock was for me.”
Santa Fe Reporter