Zoe Urness

Tlingit Alaskan Native and Cherokee

About the Artist

Zoe Marieh Urness is an award-winning Alaskan Tlingit and Cherokee photographer from the Pacific Northwest, where she became deeply involved in her Tlingit culture from childhood. After attending Brooks Institute of Photography, Zoe lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for nearly 10 years, and developed her signature style of fusing documentary and fine art. Her foundation project, “Native Americans: Keeping the Traditions Alive,” was published in a book. She has used her lens to focus on social injustice and inequalities, representing modern Native life while honoring the past. Zoe has won numerous first place awards from the Autry Museum, Heard Museum and Santa Fe Indian Market. Notable work includes a solo exhibition with the Booth Western Art Museum, Showing at Art Basel Miami, PHOTO LA, and Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) called “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists.” Following its debut at MIA, “Hearts of Our People” traveled to the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., and Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa. Her work has also been exhibited in the United Kingdom and Russia. Zoe received the 2022 Sony Alpha Female+ Grant, in support of her project, “Indigenous Motherhood.”

About the Art

No Spiritual Surrender

“This photo, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, represents spiritual resistance, not only to the Dakota Access Pipeline, but also in defense of Indigenous sovereignty and cultural preservation. I traveled to Standing Rock with two fellow artists to join the water protectors’ resistance when they were under siege by water cannons. Temperatures were below freezing, and snow was falling. I saw a protestor wearing a Tlingit button blanket and was determined to capture his image. The photo represented the protestors’ strife and sacrifice, physically and emotionally; and the endurance and power of people coming together for one common goal ― justice to the people and the land. I will never forget that moment or the experience.” ―Zoe Urness

Urness gallery image

Profile Q&A

What does the idea of "justice for Native communities" mean to you?

It means addressing the historical and ongoing injustices that Indigenous people have always faced, such as land theft, forced relocation, forced assimilation, cultural genocide, and the violation of treaty rights. When I hear the word “justice” in the context of Native communities, words and phrases that come to mind include sovereignty, self-determination, cultural revitalization, and the recognition and honoring of Indigenous rights and knowledge.

What do you think needs to happen in the world to achieve justice for Native communities?

We must recognize that Native communities have the right to make their own decisions about land, resources, and their future. This would require honoring treaties and respecting Indigenous knowledge. Also, Native communities have rich cultural traditions, and knowledge and justice can be achieved by promoting cultural revitalization and preservation, ensuring that Indigenous languages, arts, and traditions are valued and celebrated.

How do you express justice through your artwork?

Art has the power to convey powerful messages and bring attention to important issues. It can be used as a tool to educate, inspire, and mobilize people to act in the name of social justice. I choose to use my photography to celebrate culture and resilience; to celebrate the rich cultural heritage and resilience of Native communities; to highlight the beauty and strength of Indigenous cultures, languages, and traditions, and celebrate the contributions of Indigenous people to society. Ultimately, as an artist, I create images that can play a role in promoting awareness and understanding.

Is there anything else you would like to share about Native justice and your artwork?

My art is a way for people to view modern Indigenous people photographed in traditional clothing and on land that is special to them. This imagery serves to honor the past and share how we are still here living through traditions and values passed on from one generation to the next. Without honoring our traditional way of life and practices, we would not be here in this modern world. Art can serve as a platform to elevate Indigenous voices and perspectives, and promote understanding and celebrate Indigenous ways of life, both traditionally and contemporarily. It can also serve as a tool for cultural revitalization and preservation, highlighting the beauty and richness of Indigenous cultures and traditions.