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 country.
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.”