Introduction by Dana Hedgpeth, a local reporter and member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe of North Carolina.
“But you don’t look like an Indian!”
I’ve heard that response more than a few times from people when they learn that I am an American Indian. I am a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe of North Carolina. I grew up in the D.C. suburbs, not on a reservation. In fact, our tribe doesn’t have a reservation, but my family often travels to Hollister, N.C., where the Haliwa-Saponi have their tribal homelands, for cultural gatherings or events.
It’s a common frustration for many of the country’s American Indians and Alaska Natives: People react with surprise or disbelief when we tell someone that we’re from a tribe that is Indigenous to the United States.
Many people assume all American Indians are dead; they have an image in their heads of old black-and-white photos of some western Plains Indians who performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. Or they wrongly generalize that we’re all confined to reservations, living in poverty or flush with casino cash.
For many of us, the message to the rest of society is simple: “We’re still here.”
The city of Anchorage sits on the homeland of the Dena’ina tribe. The Anchorage Museum installed “This is Dena’ina Ełnena” on its facade as part of its land acknowledgment efforts to recognize the Indigenous people of a place. The Indigenous Place Names Project has come up with 30 locations to place new signs, like the one seen here in Muldoon Park/Chanshtnu (“Grass Creek”).
There are more than 570 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages in the United States. According to the 2020 Census, fewer than a quarter of American Indians and Alaska Natives reside on reservations or other tribal lands. Most of us — close to two-thirds — live in major cities or smaller metro regions and suburban areas.
We are represented in a wide range of professional jobs, such as doctors, lawyers, scientists, artists, authors and politicians. Many of us also continue to practice the cultural traditions of our specific tribes, teaching them to the next generation.
For Native American Heritage Month, my colleague Rachel Hatzipanagos and I talked with several American Indians and Alaska Natives about their work to remind nonnatives that we are still here.
They represent different tribes and varied professions, some working on reservations and some at major institutions in big cities around the country. They acknowledge the struggles of their people and are determined to educate their children and the public about their history and their current lives.
We invited Inupiaq photographer Brian Adams to create a visual response to our theme of “we’re still here.” He chose to document the efforts of the Indigenous Place Names Project, which looks to reclaim these Dena’ina spaces. The movement creates place markers throughout Anchorage with the names of the locations in the native Alaska language.
My husband and I have been taking our girls, ages 7 and 9, to our tribe’s annual powwow since they were babies, and a few years ago, I watched with immense pride as they independently stepped into the arena and danced on their own, without coaxing.
As my mom says, they understood that this is where they come from, and this is who they are.
As we say in our Tutelo-Saponi language, lé: maini:naǫse — “we are still here.”