Reclaiming Indigenous Bodies:

The power of living in the skin of our ancestral legacy.

Being indigenous or a person of color means we often do not appear to fit the mainstream view of who gets seen in the media. This is changing but interestingly, indigenous women's bodies are suffering in ways more than negative body image. Indigenous women are more often victims of sex crimes and trafficking, as well as murder. The statistics are pretty appalling. However, the traditions of native cultures for indigenous women are rooted in respect and honor. This inspired a reclaiming of the indigenous culture through a body-positive storytelling project for Native Hawaiian (Kanaka) women to share how they feel about their bodies in uplifting portraits, videos, and writings.   I look forward to including other indigenous women as an extension of the project. The Kanaka women I have photographed want to honor their culture so I created a wardrobe in modern fabrics that reflects their heritage without being literal historical representations. I used to be a specialist in historical wardrobe and fabrics so I used those skills in what I created. 

In a serendipitous meeting, I was introduced to a professor, (Dr. Sara Vogel) a winner of the Fulbright scholarship for Canada whose studies include this subject.  She has become one of my expert collaborators. She had this to say about the project - "As Hawaiian women, we want to stand proud in our bodies. We want to love our bodies. We want to experience joy in our bodies. We want to be free in our bodies. We want to be free. The goal of this photo project is to honor native Hawaiian women, remind them of their strength and grit, celebrate their firmness and softness- in mind, body, and spirit, to show the world that Hawaiian women are beautiful beings worthy of being featured in fine art. It’s time we start unlearning toxic sexist and racist narratives and reclaim our strength."  

Reclaiming Indigenous Bodies looks to assign honor to the women who put themselves in front of the camera for this project in all they share with us for the audience to understand and reflect on the diversity of the indigenous woman's experience. It is the hope of all involved that these images and stories find their place in the public conversation on indigenous peoples, in Gallery Multimedia display along with being published in print.  

Won't you join us by supporting this project?

Inspiration for the Project

For me, being strong has always been more important than how my body looked.  My strength protected me from the dangers of the misogyny that believed my brown body was an object for touching without my consent.  Something my indigenous great grandmothers had no choice in during occupation and war.  
Indigenous bodies are only deemed beautiful when they fit the altered reality of Western beauty ideals.  But our bodies reflect the beauty of our ancestral legacy in all the diversity of  indigenous women. This project starting on the Hawaiian islands will reclaim the power of the Polynesian bodies that helped create a unique culture all it's own and show the power of living in the skin of our ancestral legacy.  I hope to expand the project to other native cultures.  In a way it is a search to reclaim my own ancestral legacy, obvious in my face and DNA, more importantly as a longing for the home of my heart.


There are interviews introducing our Kanaka Wahine (Native Hawaiian Women).  They share their thoughts on their culture, their ancestral legacy and their thoughts on body positivity

As we edit them, I will share them.  Emily was our oldest participant, we also had a young keiki who shared her own views on growing up to be just like her mama, proud of her body and heritage.  I am looking to create a library of these to honor the unique modern Hawaiian women and the ties bind them to their Kanaka culture.

The Photo Session Experience

It was an idea with no precedent.  When we made the call for collaborators to tell their stories and be photographed, we had very little reference materials to share with them for inspiration.  We had an inspiration to share and the women answered our clarion call to be represented.  Dr. Sara Vogel reached out to her community, her network and the very first participants came from keiki to Kapuna.  There were three sets of mothers and daughters representing several generations.  The session happened on a sunny day in the Pahoa, Hawaii rainforest studio with 10 women who brought the traditional items they wanted to be photographed with to honor their ancestral legacy.  It was a wonderful, joyful and powerful experience.  The heartfelt stories shared brought tears and laughter.  It was an experience never to be forgotten.

Would you like to participate?

The project continues and any Kanaka Wahine who wish to participate and are available to come to the Pahoa Studio are welcome.  Wardrobe is provided and we are honored to use anything you wish to bring.  You will receive a matted 8x10 fine art giclee print for your collaboration along with the complimentary photo session with a value of $425

To participate, please email Virginia Chavez Smith at with an introduction and your availability.  You are welcome to bring mothers, sisters or daughters to join you.  A model release is necessary so that we can share your story publicly.


Virginia Chavez Smith

Prints and Merchandise to Purchase Coming Soon

About the Photographer

Virginia Chavez Smith attended the Anderson School of the Arts in Aspen Colorado and learned the basics of photography under the guidance of the great Ernst Haas.  She came home to Los Angeles eager to pursue her newfound love of the craft.  She was refunded money to her next workshop at a camera store and told to go home, pick fruit and have babies.  The 70s was a difficult time for a brown woman to have a career in photography so she made do photographing friends, family, anyone who she could put in front of her camera.  A period of homelessness destroyed all her negatives and images and her camera was stolen.  When her daughter decided to become a photographer she asked her mother to join her.  Her long repressed joy for the craft was renewed and Virginia has been busy ever since again photographing anyone she can put in front of her camera as well as personal projects born of the need to tell stories, share emotions and express creative ideas.

The ongoing themes of overcoming obstacles and seeing beauty in the difficulties of life will always exist in my work.  I observe and notice the strength and accomplishments along with the pain and suffering of others, I can listen, interpret and tell their stories in images reflecting back to my subjects the issues they face as well as the hope and beauty that exists in their lives.  It is the work I will do as long as I can hold a camera.

Inquiries to feature the project are welcome

I am looking forward to the gallery shows and book publication scheduled for the end of the year.  If any are interested in a 

multimedia exhibit of this project, please contact Virginia Chavez Smith at

Access will be given for the full gallery and interviews for exhibit and publication to bonafide professionals.

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