They stood knee deep in a wheat field. Late-afternoon light landed sideways on the wheat, which shimmered in the long last rays of ending day.
Photographer Matika Wilbur smoothed the girl’s long black hair, held back by a woven cedar headband. The field once belonged to Wilbur’s family. Her grandparents, leaders in the Swinomish Tribe, lost the land to the bank during the Great Depression and never got it back.
Matika’s asked the girl, her cousin Anna Cook, to raise her hands in a traditional Coast Salish gesture of thanks. Wilbur tested the shot with a digital camera. When she was satisfied, she pulled out her big film camera to capture the image.
The photograph is now one of Wilbur’s many portraits of American Indians, a collection that will take Wilbur years to complete.
Her photo project is named “562” — more or less the number of federally recognized tribes in the country.
A similar goal was undertaken in the early 1900s by Seattle photographer Edward S. Curtis. Backed by New York millionaire J.P. Morgan, Curtis traveled the country taking pictures of tribal people. Those who lived north of Seattle likely included some of Wilbur’s relatives.
The idea was that traditional American Indian cultures had to be recorded before they vanished because of disease and assimilation. Curtis’ 20-volume book, “The North American Indian,” contains thousands of photogravure images.
The legendary photographer, who died in 1952, is in the news again with the release in October of a book by Seattle-based New York Times columnist and author Timothy Egan, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.”
Egan writes about a man whose big idea and devotion to his work cost him everything, but left this country with a valuable snapshot in time. Copies of “The North American Indian” sell for millions at auction. The book is treasured among museum curators and American Indians alike. A Curtis photo hangs in the Hibulb Cultural Center at Tulalip.
Though she appreciates the beauty of Curtis’ work, Wilbur said it’s time now for an update.
“Curtis showed some Indians as the public wanted to see them at the time, stereotypes out of the 18th century. But it isn’t even that Curtis sometimes took artistic license,” argued Wilbur, a former teacher at Tulalip Heritage High School. “It’s just that it’s time for non-Indians to stop romanticizing the American Indian. It’s not ‘Dances with Wolves’ or ‘Twilight.’ We need a shift in consciousness.
“Curtis wanted to capture the Indian before it was too late. What I am saying is, we survived, and furthermore, we have a contemporary culture.”
Her half-sister Chena Joseph of Tulalip agrees.
“I am proud to be Matika’s big sister,” Joseph said. “I support her courageous efforts to capture sovereign tribal nations from a tribal perspective. I am intrigued by her passion to communicate to the world the truths about our tribal nations.
“We all anticipate the final results of her massive project and wish her luck on her journey.”
• • •
The daughter of Kenny Joseph of Tulalip and Nancy Wilbur of Swinomish, Matika Wilbur grew up primarily among her mother’s family.
On weekdays she crossed the channel bridge from the Swinomish Reservation in Skagit County to the town of La Conner to attend school.
Wilbur was asked one day by a teacher if she didn’t want to move into the special education class, because most of those kids were from the tribe.
“I love my town and so many people there, but in communities such as La Conner and Marysville, racism is an established dynamic, one that has been handed down from generation to generation,” Wilbur said.
As an adult, Wilbur said, she is still learning what it means to be an American Indian.
“My family has a long history of being politically active in our tribes, and I grew up with a sense of responsibility,” she said. “My name, Matika, means butterfly, the messenger. My mother told me I would someday be a messenger, and now I think I’ve found the message.”
• • •
It wasn’t easy.
Wilbur was a high school athlete, popular and loud, with a big laugh. When her grandmother Laura Wilbur died and she lost a close friend and schoolmate, life changed.
“I was partying constantly and my grades were not good. I basically fell apart,” Wilbur said. “There was a lot of sadness and I went to the dark side.”
Her life was saved, she said, when her mother got Wilbur into drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
“I am proud to say now that I am 11 years sober,” she said.
Out of rehab, Wilbur was invited by a friend to attend a photography symposium where she fell in love with beautiful pictures and heard photographer Craig Tanner talk about the “myth of talent.”
“Tanner said it takes years and years of work, but if you do it long enough and are passionate about photography, you can be a master of your craft,” Wilbur said. “And that’s what I wanted. After high school graduation, I left the rez and moved to Santa Barbara.”
In California she studied at the prestigious Brooks Institute of Photography, earning scholarships to pay tuition. Ernie Brooks started the school for World War II veterans on the GI Bill.
“It was a strict setting that didn’t give the veterans time to even think about the war, and that’s what I needed, too,” Wilbur said. “The program was regimented, disciplined, technical and critical. But now when I envision a shot, I know I can execute it. I know I am going to get exactly what I want because I have that technical ability. My film will be exposed correctly and my image will be in focus.”
• • •
Wilbur graduated from Brooks with a degree in advertising and got a job helping the staff of Casa Magazine make the transition from one design software program to another. Then came an internship with well-known fashion photographer Richard Reinsdorf in Los Angeles.
“There were fancy sets and fancy food and celebrities of all sorts,” she said. “But it left me wondering what I was contributing to besides my pocketbook.”
With the help of a friend, she landed a position with Round Earth Media, a nonprofit training ground for journalists interested in reporting from around the world. Wilbur was sent to the Andes Mountains in Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, assigned to photograph native people.
“It was humbling and eye-opening,” she said. “I had never seen such poverty, but I knew this was more along the lines of what I was meant to do.”
The night before she was to visit the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu, she had a dream.
Wilbur and her grandmother Laura were singing while they shopped at Sears for sparkly ruby red slippers, like the ones Dorothy wears in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“In my dream, I suddenly dropped to my knees and told my grandma that I missed her so much and that I didn’t have time before she died to ask her enough questions,” Wilbur said. “I needed her wisdom to know what to do with my life.”
Her grandmother wondered in the dream why Wilbur was snapping pictures in South America. “She said I needed to go home to photograph my own people,” Wilbur said. “That was the turning point. I thought I was never going back to the rez. And now I am going to all of the reservations.”
• • •
Back home, a friend fronted Wilbur the money to buy a $3,000 Mamiya RZ67, the medium-format 6-by-7 film camera that makes the black-and-white images that have become her signature.
Her first project was called “We are One People.” The collection focused primarily on people in the Swinomish and Tulalip and other neighboring tribes.
“I loved working with the elders. We talked about love and spirituality, war and being an Indian.”
The first display of the photos was in La Conner in 2006. Wilbur was anxious. It was sure to be a tough audience, she thought, because many in the community had not seen her since her rough days in high school.
“But people loved it, especially the images of the elders. People cried,” Wilbur said. “That’s when I realized I could transcend the mess-ups of my life. I got lucky.”
The tribe purchased the entire portfolio.
Wilbur’s next photo project was a collection called “We Emerge,” a study of the cultural dualities faced by young tribal members.
Her photos began to appear in shows at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, the Kittredge Gallery at the University of Puget Sound, the Seattle Art Museum, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Royal British Columbia Museum and even the Nantes Museum of Fine Arts in France.
In the 2008 show “S’abadeb — The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists” at the Seattle Art Museum, Wilbur’s work was hung near sepia-toned black-and-white photographs by Edward Curtis.
“I wanted to create a dialogue between Matika and Curtis,” said Barbara Brotherton, who curated the SAM show. “Matika’s ‘562’ project will be a major contribution to how we look at contemporary native people. Native communities have connections to their pasts, but there are new modes of expression that the general public often doesn’t understand.”
• • •
Tulalip Heritage High School teachers who had seen Wilbur’s photographs in museums invited her to present monthly workshops for their students. Wilbur found some cameras for the teens to use and agreed to the work. Monthly sessions turned into weekly classes and then, after she earned a teaching certificate, Wilbur was hired as a full-time teacher.
“Matika brought a lot to the school in terms of her knowledge and artistic opportunities for students,” said English teacher Ervanna Little Eagle. “She is young and successful and she was able to connect with our students. She knew where they were coming and she offered them hope.”
Along with talking about capturing light and finding one’s own artistic expression, Wilbur introduced her students to meditation.
“At first they fought me. They knew I was a fellow Tulalip member, but they also knew I grew up at Swinomish. They saw me as a lone wolf trying to join the pack.”
It started with a two-minute guided meditation, which on occasion grew to 30 minutes.
“While they were lying on the floor, I would tell the students, ‘You are worthy, you are important, you are smart,’ and then I would ask them to say it to themselves,” Wilbur said. “I loved those kids.”
With some grant funding and the help of Wilbur’s boyfriend, Perrin Wasson-Howard, the school was able to offer a digital media class. Students produced a book with photos of their lives, including images of basketball shoes, cedar carvings, graffiti and fishing boats.
“They were powerful images. Matika helped them to see the beauty of where they come from,” Little Eagle said. “At school this year, we are incorporating what she proposes to do with the ‘562’ project into our curriculum.”
• • •
Wilbur left Tulalip Heritage in June to start the photo documentary. “Teaching gave me a real sense of purpose, but I needed to get back to shooting.”
To raise money for “562,” Wilbur used kickstarter.com, an online funding platform for creative projects. Friends, family members and strangers who liked the idea pooled their money. Wilbur tears up when she talks about the response.
In one month, Wilbur raised $35,000, which she figures will nearly pay for food, shelter, film and gasoline for a year on the road.
After that year, the Tacoma Art Museum plans to take a look at what Wilbur has produced.
“We are keen on supporting Matika,” said Rock Hushka, the museum’s curator of Northwest art. “I am a great admirer of her work because she is a singular voice in the region’s art community. This is an enormous undertaking, and for her to attempt it is extraordinary.”
It took Curtis 30 years and a small fortune to do what Wilbur proposes. When she is done, the world will have a document of contemporary Native America, Hushka said.
At the right time, the museum envisions a “562” traveling exhibition and the publication of a book, he said.
Wilbur is undaunted by the enormity of what is ahead, though she still needs to buy a travel trailer for the trip.
“Indian Country is a lot smaller for me because I have relatives and friends,” she said. “I’ll be attending a lot of gatherings such as potlatches, pow wows and canoe journeys to catch as many people as I can.”
In Connecticut, family friend Mark Hunter is looking forward to seeing Wilbur as she travels throughout the East Coast. He and his family lived for a few years near the Swinomish Reservation and got to know the Wilburs.
“Matika isn’t shy. She is funny and exuberant, and she loves to communicate and to create,” Hunter said. “She also has wanderlust and is on a mission. That laugh of hers comes from her soul. The closer she gets to a state of grace in her creativity, the farther she is from her demons.
“Because of her freshness of vision and mastery of the camera, she will be creating great art on this trip — art which is needed by our society.”
• • •
On that October afternoon in the wheat field near La Conner, Wilbur asked her cousin Anna Cook to slip on a buckskin dress over her shirt and jeans.
“Our ancestors wore cedar dresses, but I like to photograph my relatives in this dress. I traded some fireworks for it,” Wilbur said, laughing.
“Your mom is going to love me forever for this shot,” she told the girl as the camera lens clicked.
With assistance from her boyfriend and her mother, Wilbur then moved her photo equipment from the field, over the dike and down to the Swinomish Channel, which runs in front of her mother’s house.
Anna waded out into the unusually still water.
A few more camera clicks broke the silence. Wilbur stepped back and smiled.
“Well, that’s a wrap, people,” Wilbur said. “More work tomorrow.”
For more information about the project, including how to donate, go to matikawilbur.com/blog/.