We Are Activists— Tafv Sampson

At the heart of the most beautiful and important work is the act of world building. For us, it is the conceiving of the dream wardrobe for our best-imagined lives so that they might be made real, but world building touches everything that truly matters: the parent who creates the universe as they want it to be for their child, the partner who cultivates the soft contours of home, the activist who shows us the worlds that might be possible were we all to be the best versions of ourselves, the artist who captures what it is like to gaze at other stars so that we might more gracefully find our way by our own, and the storyteller who puts it all down in word or vision or labor of love.

The daughter of a powerful storytelling mother and a Native artist, actor, and activist father and grandfather, Tafv Sampson has been weaving together the bracing and beautiful threads of luminous world building for her entire life. Her poignant and aching photographic portraits, her lens-of-truth videography, and her distinctly authentic production design work—most recently on the beloved 'Reservation Dogs'—is the inheritance of generations of potent chroniclers. We caught up with Tafv in a whirlwind between her now-native Brooklyn and the siren's call of work and the road to talk about the value of vulnerability, the sense of longing and memory inherent in a great photograph, and the surprising gifts of blazing her own next steps on an ancestral path towards owning your own voice.


Tafv wears the Noe Crop in Bark, and Juno Pants in Putty.





There is grace and power in names and naming. Your father's grandmother gave you your name, Tafv, which means 'feather' in the Creek language. Do you feel like it fits you (or do you fit it)?

Everyone assumed I was going to be a boy when my mom was pregnant with me. My parents kept trying to come up with boy names, some in Creek (Fus-wah was on the table, meaning 'bird' in my language). I'm not even sure they bothered to think of any girl names. Then one day my great grandmother said very matter-of-factly that I was a little girl named Tafv, as if she already knew me, and that was that. I can't know what it feels like to not have such a strong connection to one's name, but for me it feels like a very large part of who I am (possibly why I am!). I didn't grasp the importance of a traditional name when I was younger, but as I get older I'm understanding the magnitude of being so connected to one—a beautiful word in a near extinct language, a name that only my Oklahoma family can really say in just that particular way. It's grounding to have a name with such deep roots and long history in an age where we get farther and farther from where we came from.


Your photographs are like entire richly built worlds, vivid and wholly realized even in a single frame. What does it feel like to capture a universe in a moment?

I've always been someone who is deeply nostalgic, clinging frantically to the past like tangled Saran wrap, completely devastated when anything ends. The mourning of time gone by found a cushion of abatement when I discovered photography in my early teens. All of a sudden I could hold onto something as clear as it was in that moment, and look back at it anytime I wanted. As I carried photography into adulthood I found that I was most drawn towards taking photos of the people I already had in my life, people I was close to. Photos of scenery or even models on a set who I had no previous connection with did not give me that sense of urgency to keep them, and that's what photos are to me, keepsakes. Without that longing to hold onto something it's very hard for me to know when that instinctual 'moment' happens. Capturing the universe in a moment for me is capturing 'us' in the universe at that moment. What you're feeling, how we feel towards one another, that intimacy is what I'm after. That's the universe right there.


There is a beautiful tension between vulnerability and power in your work. How do you experience that as a creator?

I am someone who has never tried to hide much of my vulnerability, I pretty much lay all the goofy stuff out on the table upfront. You have to if you expect the people in your life, and the people you’re shooting, to give it in return. I’ve worked in the art department for fashion shoots for 10+ years and I realized early on there wasn’t a lot of joy happening on set, no laughing, no tenderness, everyone felt pained and stressed, the end result naturally lacking soul. I made it a point during my shoots there had to be laughing, even gleeful chaos, because once the dust settles from that, you get the intimacy. In a successful shoot you get to the point where you’re both passing vulnerability and power back and forth, a vibrational giving and taking that is unspoken and effortless. It’s really such a sexy exchange.




Tafv wears the Keaton Jumpsuit in Putty



Tafv wears the Bias Slip Dress in Natural and Finley ZipUp in Cream 






Family history and culture can be heavy, but it can also be like an anchor that gives us the freedom to move safely along cresting waves. What are you anchored to and what tides are lifting you up?

I never thought anything relating to my work life would bring me closer to my family history or culture, but then along came 'Reservation Dogs' that shot this past spring in Okmulgee, Oklahoma (where my dad is from). I had no idea going in how my world would change. My insides suddenly on the outside, heart splayed open for three incredible months of filming. Never in my life had I been on a crew with another native person, it never occurred to me that I ever would be. Now I was working with a mostly all native crew and cast, telling a genuine and tender story about the kids and town my family came from. I had long conversations with co-workers about how we've watched our parents, and their parents, for years try and change the narrative on how Native people are portrayed, spoken about, and re-enacted, never having their own voice. My dad and grandfather were both actors and activists, spending their lives and careers pushing that boulder up the hill, unwavering in their faith that someday we'd get there. If they could see now where all their giving has led us, I think they would weep. Because of them, it now gets to be us, their kids, who have the voice. The friends, artists, and family members I would get to know through this job (the makeup artist turning out to be my cousin! Cousins by dozens, as they say) was a gift that came at the time when I needed it most. This project anchored me more into myself, into my father, into my family and culture, more than anything ever has and I am incredibly humbled and honored to have been a part of it. The explosion this created in the mainstream was something I don't think any of us were expecting, and suddenly there is an audience that is ready and hungry for native stories told by native people. A rising tide lifts all boats, and the work this year that fought its way in through the crack has now pushed the door wide open, creating the opportunities for all of us to walk through.


Talk to us about your heart connection to the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) and what you value in the work they are doing.

As happenstance would have it, when I began looking into non-profits it coincided with the unfortunate passing of my uncle, my dad's younger brother. In this I met my cousin Jane for the first time who happened to just move to Portland Oregon, my hometown, to teach youth programs at NAYA. NAYA is an urban Indian agency that has programs in everything from early education, family stability, and elder support, to leadership programs, financial planning, and culture identity. It impacts the lives of people from 380 tribal backgrounds annually, all strongly driven with spirituality and wellness at its core. It is also directly affiliated with NARA (Native American Rehabilitation Association) which was where my dad saw his doctor for many years, a place that is very familiar and close to my heart. So Jane and Dad, this is for you. MVTO (thank you) for everything.


For the month of February we'll be donating 100% of proceeds from our Sisterhood Bandana to NAYA.

Find Tafv's website here. Photos by Chloe Horseman.






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