Native American Pride

Inspired by the charismatic, brave and wild Native American people of the Colville Indian Reservation, Fergus Thomas tells a story of a resilient and defiant people who refuse to let tradition and identify be quashed by contemporary American society.

© Fergus Thomas, from the series Colville

Raw and compelling, Fergus Thomas' images in Colville (working title) offer a portrait of the Native American people who live in the Colville Indian Reservation in the US state of Washington. It is managed by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, which was established in 1872 and is home to more than 7000 people.

In the summers of 2015 and 2016, Thomas, a London-based documentary photographer, travelled to Colville where he lived among and got to know some of the people who call the Reservation home. His intention was to focus on photographing the bareback horseracing that takes place there, but Thomas began to forge friendships, and his project became more about the inhabitants’ lives and experiences.

© Fergus Thomas, from the series Colville

"The riders are charismatic, brave and wild," says Thomas, who studied a BA in Documentary Photography at the University of South Wales, Newport. "Despite having had their culture and race attacked and diluted over hundreds of years, they still adhere to and believe in their Native American identity. They race, hunt, forage, and feed like their forefathers did, and they defy white American culture, following instead ‘the path of the Indian man’. I really admire these people, and wanted to learn from them."

Affected by the difficulties these people encounter as they try to keep their traditions and heritage alive in a complex and multilayered contemporary American society, Thomas explains he wanted his images to convey the power of what he was seeing – the "raw rhythms of life that are both beautiful and brutal," he says. "I wanted to show the pride and power of these people." 

By looking to old myths and rituals, and cultivating a strong, enduring relationship with the land, animals and ecosystems, the Native American people of this Reservation are able to develop a sense of pride and identity, he adds.

© Fergus Thomas, from the series Colville

In particular Thomas formed close relationships with Lewis, and Lewis’ family. Thomas recounts how Lewis, a "tough, talented rider and a skilled hunter", someone who is "fearless and very single-minded", gave him a bald eagle feather, the receiving of which is considered to be a huge honour. "The Native Americans believe eagles are the king of all birds and are connected with the heavens," says Thomas. "It’s the greatest gift they could give."

The project is a work in progress, says Thomas, and he hopes to be able to return to the Reservation in the near future to continue shooting. "People on the Reservation are very welcoming. They are honest and direct. I worked for my day-to-day existence – for food and lodging – and that’s levelling. You’re all in it together, and you pull your weight."

To see more of Fergus’ work, visit his PHmuseum profile.

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