SEATTLE — Edward Curtis was roughly the same age as Matika Wilbur when he began photographically documenting what he believed was a vanishing race of people.
One hundred ten years later, Wilbur has embarked on a three-year project to photograph peoples and cultures that are not only alive but are thriving and a force in American life.
Wilbur, a 28-year-old Swinomish/Tulalip woman, hit the road Nov. 28 on Project 562, an undertaking to photograph people from every federally recognized indigenous nation in the United States. When completed, the project will result in a book, exhibitions, lecture series, website and a curriculum.
Her goal: To gather the 21st century image of Native Americans and share its glory and grist with a contemporary, dynamic eye and audience; to expose the astonishing variety of the Indian presence and reality; as she puts it, to “build cultural bridges, abandon stereotypes, and renew and inspire our national legacy”; and to reveal the enduring richness, complex variety and tenacity of Native America.
It’s the fourth major project by the social documentarian and her most ambitious by far. She photographed Coast Salish elders for the exhibit “We Are One People,” photographed Native people in contemporary settings for the exhibit “We Emerge,” and photographed young Native people expressing their identities in modern ways in “Save the Indian and Kill The Man.”
For Project 562, Wilbur is traveling across the United States by car and RV with her Mamiya film camera and Canon EOS 7D. The project is funded by donations generated mostly by a campaign through fundraising website Kickstarter.
Her Kickstarter goal was $30,000, and when the funding period ended November 1, she had raised over $35,000. The sum is enough to cover one year of the three-year project. (The number, 562, represents the number of federally recognized Native nations when she began developing the project; there are now 566 and she expects there will be more in the future. “The number 562 is a ‘jumping off point,’ if you will,” she said, adding that she intends to include people from non-recognized Nations as well).
Despite the number of indigenous nations in the United States, “there isn’t one central location that represents those people,” Wilbur said in her Kickstarter video. “My objective is to unveil the true essence of contemporary Native issues, the beauty of Native culture, the magnitude of tradition, and expose our vitality.”
As a Native artist, she considers it her responsibility to document contemporary Native America, with the end result being education: Raising awareness of contemporary Native America, abolishing stereotypes, and leaving a photographic legacy.
Wilbur, a certified teacher formerly on staff at Tulalip Heritage High School, said “it’s been a long journey” for her to get to this point as a social documentarian in Indian country. Much of her work to this point has been influenced by her own journey of self-discovery — of what it means to be an indigenous person, what it means to live a life of cultural duality.
Wilbur earned her bachelor’s degree in photography at Brooks Institute, with the goal of becoming a fashion photographer. She had a change of heart after participating in a commercial shoot in Los Angeles. The resources expended to produce a single photo for a clothing ad — a rented house in Malibu, art director, hair and makeup person, publicist, three photographers, for a photo “I could have done for $5” — got her thinking: “This is what my life was going to be like. What kind of meaning did it have in the long run?”
She joined Round Earth Media and photographed indigenous people in South America, documenting the impacts on indigenous communities that were growing corn as a biofuel, not as food.
Then, one night, she had a dream in which her late grandmother, who had been a prominent Swinomish leader, told her she needed to go home and photograph her people. Having grown up on the reservation, attended college in Santa Barbara and worked amid the excesses of Los Angeles, she was confronted by internal questions of who she was as an indigenous person in a contemporary world.
“I had been off the rez for five years and was experiencing a kind of identity crisis,” Wilbur said. “The experience of growing up on the rez is different, and I didn’t understand that. It took sitting down with my elders and with some great leaders and asking them what it means to be Indian.”
Those consultations led to the “We Are One People” project, “the beginning phase of my working as a photographer in Indian country,” she said.
Later, when she began exhibiting and lecturing across the U.S., she would be asked questions about other indigenous peoples that she couldn’t answer. “The only way I was going to answer the questions to those things, and have a clear understanding, was to go there and find out,” she said.
Building a network of contacts for the 562 Project was a fulltime job in itself. Her mother, former Swinomish Tribal Senate member Nancy Wilbur, was her assistant and publicist. “We compiled a humongous list of contacts — tribal communications departments, human resources directors, the culture bearers. You should see this spreadsheet; it goes from the ceiling to the floor,” Wilbur said.
She asked around: “What cousins do we have?” She and her mom contacted all of the tribal newspapers. She sought advice from a group she calls her advisory committee, including Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American art at the Seattle Art Museum; and Dr. Charlotte Cote', Tseshaht/Nuu-chah-nulth, a professor at the University of Washington.
The contacts began to steamroll. She was invited to the Makah Nation to meet five people to photograph; those sources led to contacts in Quinault, and so on.
“People have been incredibly generous [with contacts],” she said. “I can’t believe the number of phone calls and emails I’ve received, asking, ‘When are you coming?’ The Lumbee chairman contacted me and asked, ‘When are you coming to North Carolina? I would like to host you and introduce you to our people.’ It’s amazing. I feel like I’m part of a greater purpose here.”
Wilbur is also using social media to locate contacts — the most recent post on her Facebook page (facebook.com/matika.wilbur) is dated January 8, and seeks contacts in the following tribal groups: Ramona, Cahuilla, Pechanga, Pala, Pauma, Rincon, San Pascual, Borana, Sycuan, Viejas and Campo Manzanita & La Posta.
She and her mother spent two weeks preparing items for gifting, among them canned fish and canned berries. Then, on Nov. 28, her journey began and she set off for 13 reservations and rancherias in California to photograph the Hupa, Karuk, Klamath, Mattole, Pit River, Shasta, Tolowa, Wintu, Wiyot, Yana, Yurok peoples. She expects in the first year she will finish part of California, and parts of Alaska, Oregon and Washington. (She had already photographed people from 59 federally recognized Tribes by the time the project formally started.)
She's using use two cameras: A Mamiya film camera and Canon EOS 7D digital. She prefers film. “The lens quality of the Mamiya is so much more crisp than any other lens quality with the Canon,” she said. “It’s so much easier for me to use my 7D, but it’s much less effective. There’s something more rich in the blacks and the tones in a photo made with a film camera, a quality you’re not able to capture [with digital].”
She’ll archive her photos on DVD, CDR, on hard drive and on the Internet.
She hopes Project 562 will change the “18th century image” many people have of Native Americans.
“People understand that we survived, but the stereotypes remain,” Wilbur said. “Many people fail to recognize the tremendous number of professionals in Indian country, the number of people who are living in cultural duality.”
Wilbur’s photography is known for the depth and uniqueness in which she explores the contemporary Native experience and identity.
Of Wilbur’s most recent exhibit, "Save the Indian, Kill the Man," Brotherton wrote: "From 1880 and into the modern era, the U.S. government forced thousands of Native children into residential schools under the policy of ‘Kill the Indian and Save the Man,’ in the mistaken belief that only through assimilation could Native people survive. Stripped of their languages and traditions, and forced to endure starvation, disease and abuse, many internalized their ordeal through alcoholism and suicide, thus creating a cycle of trauma felt by subsequent generations … Matika Wilbur up-ends the manifesto of cultural genocide in provocative works that lay bare issues of contemporary ‘Indian-ness,’ and the resolve of a new generation to express their identities, not by past trauma, but in modern, complex and surprising ways."
Artist Shaun Peterson, Puyallup, said of Wilbur’s work, “I know personally, in my involvement in public speaking at colleges, one of the things that comes up a lot is the perception that Native people are not part of contemporary life, that we’re just relics of the past or stuck in a time period. Those issues have been the basis of this project, to counter that romantic imagery and showcase who we are.”
Artist Micah McCarty, chairman of the Makah Nation, said, “It’s an awesome project. She has a grand vision and the right heart to do it.” McCarty said the project will result in more respect for Native peoples and cultures. “We make up an important part of the American landscape,” he said.
Artist Justin Finkbonner, policy analyst for the Lummi Nation, worked with Wilbur on her “We Emerge” project. He said Project 562 will “be a lasting project” that will result in an “up-to-date” image of Native peoples. “From the east coast to the west coast, we survived the treaties and chemical warfare and mission schools and the termination era. We survived and we’ve thrived.”
Of Wilbur’s skills as a photographer, Finkbonner said, “She’s a good listener. She’s able to capture in her photography the voice, the spirit and the traditional teachings. She’s passionate about her work. She’s a young Native woman leader, but she doesn’t need to be in politics [to lead]. She uses the skills she’s been given.”
Wilbur hopes Project 562 will encourage younger people and emerging artists to tell the stories of their people. “It’s so important that we start telling our own stories. I hope I’m able to encourage them to do so.”