The year 2020 marked the 400-year anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival from England. The Mayflower and its aftermath has become the first and most culturally iconic story told to many young Americans about the country’s founding and initial relationships with Native people. But the stories they’re told of flourishing friendships, discoveries, and untouched wilderness are harmful myths. The story of the Mayflower, recorded in countless books and media and taught in schools, is told narrowly through the lens of the colonizers. It’s well documented that the Vikings explored North America in the 10th century, and of course Columbus landed in 1492 carrying disease, death, enslavement, and displacement. By 1650–– 30 years after the Mayflower –– an estimated 90% of Native people had died from European diseases.
The 400 Years Project, founded by Brian Adams, Sheena Brings Plenty, and Sarah Stacke, looks at the evolution of Native identity, rights, and representation, centering the Native voice. Composed of photo essays, a digital Library of Native Photographers from the mid-1800s to the Present, and texts, the project provides a narrative of Native empowerment while recognizing the devastating effects of colonization.
Moving forward, 400 Years will continue to commission original photo stories and texts, license established work, and add contemporary and historic photographers to the library. Along with helping storytellers document their own communities and providing avenues for the stories to reach broad audiences, our goal at 400 Years is to create a groundbreaking pictorial collection of Native America by Native artists and allies. We are firmly dedicated to supporting the creation of work that falls outside of the editorial template, or any known template, and sheds new light on the understanding of Native America.
The 400 Years Library includes historical photographers plus a range of contemporary photographers from enthusiasts, to emerging, to professional. Our criteria is that the person is Native and is dedicated to the craft of photography. This approach contributes to an understanding that cameras have been in the hands of Native photographers since the invention of the medium and Native people have incorporated photography into their lifeways since the 1800s, both as patrons and creators. We want to take concrete steps toward decolonizing the archive. The inclusion of enthusiasts and emerging photographers alongside professionals leaves room for vital stories, perspectives, and styles that don’t typically find a place in popular media publications.
"Who is telling stories about Native nations is really important," says Brian. "This project lets Native photographers tell the stories of their communities without any middleperson explaining anything."
The 400 Years Project is made possible by the generous support of our sponsors and partners:
Old Dominion University (special shout out to Jennifer Fish), The Margaret House Foundation, Elena Prohaska Glinn, Anchorage Museum, Rima Vargas-Vetter and Paul Ukena.
We would also like to extend many thanks to Lillian Zumberge for her text editing talent, Jamie Wellford and Gail Fletcher at National Geographic for their support of "Cherokee Lands," the National Geographic Society’s Emergency Fund for Journalists, Mike Hartley of bigflannel for this gorgeous site, Maggie Soladay at OSF, and everyone who spends time with The 400 Years Project.