Photographer Matika Wilbur, who is a member of the Tulalip and Swinomish tribes, set out seven years ago in November on an ambitious journey.
The goal was to document people from the more than 562 federally recognized, sovereign Native American nations. A similar mission was undertaken in the early 1900s by Seattle photographer Edward S. Curtis, who believed traditional American Indian cultures had to be recorded before they vanished because of disease, genocide and assimilation.
A graduate of the prestigious Brooks Institute of Photography, Wilbur says she was visited in a dream by her grandmother Laura, who asked Matika why she wasn’t photographing her own people. Wilbur also knew first-hand the lack of school curricula regarding Native Americans today, and decided to refocus her work.
“That was the turning point,” Wilbur told The Daily Herald in 2012. “I thought I was never going back to the rez. And now I am going to all of the reservations. Because we are still here and we have a contemporary culture.”
In the process, Wilbur’s Project 562 also has included state-recognized tribes and urban communities. When completed, the work will represent about 900 American Indian communities.
Wilbur, now 35, had a baby last week. But she is “rounding the corner” on Project 562, with an exhibition planned for late 2020 and book publications to follow. Funding comes primarily from grants, and that financial help continues.
In recognition of Native American Heritage Month, here’s a recent chat with Matika Wilbur.
How is the project going?
We’re in the final stretch, and preparing for a show at the Tacoma Art Museum and, ultimately, the publication of three books: a kids book, a coffee table book and a classroom tool kit.
We also have a podcast — “All My Relations” — with Adrienne Keene, who truly is Cherokee (Matika laughs), and we just wrapped up our current season. We talk about what it’s like to be indigenous in 2019, and have had a lot of people join us to discuss topics including food sovereignty, the feeding of the spirit, fashion, sexuality and DNA tests (www.allmyrelationspodcast.com).
What are your plans for next year?
We have visited most places, but we need to return to North Dakota, Oklahoma and remote parts of Alaska.
We just got back from a trip to California where I spoke at Cal State at Sacramento and East Bay, Stanford, and the Berkeley Public Library.
You have done a lot of speaking across the country during the past few years. Who do you most like to talk with?
The intention of Project 562 is to encourage scholarship and collective consciousness in our indigenous communities. I guess I see it as an act of service, spreading messages entrusted to me. I prefer to work with young people, native scholars and people of color. It’s about resiliency and power. I hope young tribal members see themselves reflected in the work.
Are you seeing positive results from the project?
I think we have had some cultural shifts since we started the work, but it doesn’t mean we have come that far from those of the previous generation that included Winona LaDuke, Wilma Mankiller, Vine Deloria, Thomas King and Billy Frank Jr.
It’s still not safe in this country to be a Native, especially for women.
I do not know if I am making a difference. There are anecdotal moments when young people have said they know they are part of the resistance to colonization, racism, systematic injustice and myths about American Indians. My work came at the right time, but it’s still highly invisible to most people in this country. We need more Native people in all areas of life.
How about the work for you personally?
The Project 562 work is exciting, but I am still overwhelmed. We still have a lot to do. I am grateful for the experience and the chance to come to know so many change-makers, knowledge-holders, activists and artists among the indigenous people of this country. I am so moved by their strengths. My hopes are restored and renewed. I’ve grown as a person. I have encountered humanity at its best in Indian Country. I am inspired, especially by the matriarchs.
What are your challenges?
It is a challenge to see things with new eyes on a regular basis. We have met a lot of people. I am an adventurous person, but now I have to sit at a desk to edit, print and write. That’s difficult.
How does a session go with one of your subjects?
We do an interview with 10 to 20 questions, talking about life stories, love, freedom, family, tribal and societal issues, etc. The conversations are different across the country. People have land-based identities. There are no pan-Indians. Everyone is an individual, and it’s our job to respect that.
Then we photograph them in their traditional territory. I aim to do character-study portraits that capture the individuality of each person.
Any message for the local folks who contributed to your Kickstarter fundraising-campaign seven years ago?
We are grateful for them and can’t wait to share our results. It’s been a soul-bearing labor of love, just as it was love when these people donated to get us started. Their support made it possible.