Maggie Steber had certainly been aware of the native tribes growing up in Austin, Texas, both by proximity and family. She is one-quarter Cherokee but was not raised with any connection to tribal traditions. When she was given photographic assignments to cover first the Cherokee and then other tribal groups across the United States, she considered the first a happy accident and threw herself into it as she always does. She would never consider starting a job without a great deal of research. She wants to know as much as possible, then go into each situation putting the learning aside and being open to the experience.
When Steber meets people like Tom and Annie Wildcat (family images in the gallery), she doesn’t want to “just photograph,” but now that she’s gotten beyond the earliest, hardest days of being a photographer, she makes friends. She is still advised “not to get involved,” but that’s not how she works – the experience is too important to her. And in the case of the Wildcats, she becomes part of the family. The Wildcats, full-blooded Cherokee-Creek, live in Tahlequah, Okla. They practice the traditional worship of their Native church with backyard stomp dances. They are a poor family but rich in their daily practices and beliefs. Friendship bestows an intimacy that allows the photographer “to see remarkable private moments,” but it can also stop her from making certain images of her friends that might intrude.
Some of the images in the gallery were first published in National Geographic. The first article appeared in May 1995 and concerned the Cherokee people. The piece, “The Cherokee: Two Nations, One People,” sent Steber to North Carolina and Oklahoma, the two seats of the tribe. The author, Geoffrey Norman, notes that archaeologists sifting through potsherds and sites of the original tribe that stretch from the Ohio River into what is now Georgia determined that Cherokee were living in the southern Appalachians as long as 2,000 years ago. Apparently 2,000 years before that they had split away from the Iroquois nation.
In the War of 1812 they fought with General Andrew Jackson who, when he became president, thanked them by signing the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The act exiled the Cherokee and many other Eastern tribes and sent them across the Mississippi. At least 1,000 Cherokee escaped and hid in the Great Smoky Mountains; an estimated 15,000 walked 800 miles on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma – nearly 30 percent of them died. Now Oklahoma is the home of the Cherokee Nation, a federally recognized sovereign nation – not a reservation.
Maggie Steber’s artist’s statement, which accompanies this feature, says plainly that she, like the Natives, is caught in and fighting against stereotypes. The public wants to see the Indians they’ve seen portrayed on television and in movies: Plains Indians with buckskin clothes and war bonnets. The Cherokee and many other tribes are not Plains people like the Apache and Lakota. The Cherokee did not wear feathered headdresses, they wore turbans – just look at a drawing of Sequoyah, their extraordinary leader in the east (he created a syllabary, sometimes referred to as an alphabet, that made the Cherokee literate in the 1820s).
Chief Henry, who appears in the first image in the gallery, illustrates the conundrum. While Henry was a chief at one point he is here “chiefing,” that is, posing for tourists. He was criticized by some for not being sufficiently true to Cherokee traditional dress but he pointed out that in over 44 years of “chiefing” he had made enough money to educate six children and pay for his home. “The tourists love this look,” he said. “So, I’ll be chiefing this way until Gabriel blows his horn.”
Speaking of her career in photography, Maggie Steber says that it has given her a life she never expected. She has worked in 59 countries, usually on social, political and cultural issues. More and more she appreciates “the full, rounded circle of experience” that the extraordinary people who are friends and subjects have given her.