Viewfinder: Mary Annette Pember

Tired of seeing Native Americans portrayed as the “three D’s” – dead, drunk or dancing – Mary Annette Pember uses her camera and pen to tell complex stories about Native people.

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Mary Annette Pember is a storyteller.  As a young girl growing up in rural Wisconsin in the 50’s and 60’s, she would often cut class to go to the library and read.  She fell in love with stories and storytelling and developed a talent for communication and the written word. Later, when she discovered photography at a local community college, she found yet another way to tell stories through visual images.

(See some of Pember's artilcles for the Daily Yonder.)

Pember’s hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, was not particularly diverse, and her family was one of the very few native families.  The daughter of a Norwegian/Welsch father and a Bad River Ojibwe mother, she learned about racial differences early on. 

Growing up, Pember says she was often described as “exotic,” a phrase that bothered her. 

“I would think ‘Wait a minute, how come I’m exotic and you get to be normal?’” Pember says. “So I’m sort of on a mission to make us normal, to just make us other people.  And if you just see us as people, you’re less likely to pigeon hole us.”

Pember never went to high school but got a GED and studied at a two-year community college in Janesville, where an instructor convinced her to try her hand at photography.  Already an avid writer, Pember found photography to be a powerful tool in supporting her storytelling.  She later transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism and art photography before working as a writer and photographer at several newspapers.

"(This picture) is on the Choctaw reservation in Mississippi outside of Philadelphia. Choctaw folks are very traditional. The clothing they’re wearing is a story in itself. The patterns are of snakes, which are really important to them culturally, and to their gardens. They have a successful casino and they utilize that income to support the culture and language for their young folks."

Pember now focuses primarily on her own writing after realizing that writing for newspapers wasn’t a good fit for her.  Committed to writing about Native people and issues, she was often accused of being unable to remain objective.

“Editors would say to me, ‘You only want to do pieces about Native people but you can’t do that because you’re Native.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, you’ve got all these white guys from entitled backgrounds writing about other white guys. How can they be objective?’  And I got sick of arguing with them, so I decided to just go do what I want to do and see what happens.”

 "That’s on Bad River reservation, and this is a mother and child. She’s at a hoop garden, provided by a grassroots organization on the reservation to try and foster more individual house gardens. Reservations used to often have big community gardens, and since they’ve gone a bit away from that just in the last generation the diabetes rate has just gone up, and birth weights are the highest in the state of Wisconsin on the Bad River reservation. So this little grassroots organization started working on the cultural revitalization of the garden itself, and helping the health of the reservation by trying to address eating habits."

Now a freelance writer, Pember often uses photography to enhance her stories and literally put a face to the people and places she writes about. It allows her to show faces that aren’t always represented in mainstream media. 

“The photos that I saw as a young woman didn’t look like anything like the Native people that I was related to or I knew. I knew an editor at a paper who said, ‘Whenever you see Native people in the media, it’s always the three D’s — we’re dead, drunk or dancing.’ That bothered me.  And being bothered, being angry, has always been a big motivator for me.”

 "That’s the Oregon State Penitentiary in the Salem, Oregon, from a story that never went to press. Native people are overrepresented in America’s prisons. They're incarcerated at a far greater rate than others. This is pow-wow the prisoners had at the penitentiary."

Pember has worked as an independent journalist focusing on Native American issues since 2000. She is a regular contributor to Indian Country Today Media Network, The Daily Yonder, The Tribal College Journal, The Progressive Magazine and other print and online venues including the Washington Post , The New York Times and National Public Radio. In her writing and photography she has covered subjects including the high rates of sexual assault among Native women, gangs in Indian Country, health and environmental challenges in Native communities, federal policy issues as well as cultural and spiritual topics.

She is an enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe tribe and is past president of the Native American Journalists Association. She currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with her family.




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