Tulalip woman’s photography project of U.S. tribes on display in Tacoma

Matika Wilbur, a member of the Tulalip and Swinomish Indian tribes, set out in late November 2012 on an ambitious journey.

The goal was to photograph people from the more than 562 federally recognized, sovereign American Indian tribes.

A similar mission 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. Curtis’ idea was that traditional American Indian cultures had to be recorded before they vanished because of disease and assimilation.

“Well, clearly, we’re still here,” Wilbur said.

Her purpose with the project, Wilbur said, is to build cultural bridges, get rid of stereotypes, unveil truths, fight racism, support treaty rights and “renew and inspire our national legacy.”

The American Indians she has photographed to date include an urban rapper, an actor, a college professor, a doctor, an attorney, a farmer, a rancher and a fashion designer.

After hearing about some of the people Wilbur has met along the way, a young relative of hers remarked that he “didn’t know there were so many cool Indians out there.”

The project is already building pride among younger American Indians, Wilbur said.

To get the project started and keep it going, Wilbur, 30, a former Tulalip Heritage High School teacher, conducted two successful Kickstarter fundraising campaigns.

With the money, she has traveled tens of thousands of miles and visited more than 200 tribes throughout the Northwest, California, the Southwest, Montana and Hawaii to make portraits of indigenous people.

That’s a lot of driving, peanut butter sandwiches, couch surfing and giving of gifts of her mother’s canned salmon.

“People would ask, ‘Why are you doing this? Where are you from? Are you hungry?’ I was treated very well.”

Wilbur is about a third of the way through her journey with plans to head to Alaska this summer.

The inaugural exhibition of Project 562 includes 50 of her photographs, displayed through Oct. 5 at the Tacoma Art Museum.

The photos are a mix of sepia-toned, watercolor-tinted and black-and-white portraits.

Along with the photos, people can listen to recorded interviews Wilbur conducted, too.

Curator Rock Hushka said the display is a work in progress about a work in progress. Some of the photos shown may change during the course of the exhibit.

Each grouping of photos in the show involves a variety of generations, people in traditional dress and everyday clothes, and in a variety of locations.

“It’s a massive undertaking to distill this down for a museum setting,” Hushka said. “It involves a breathtaking range of stories about people and of their spiritual lives.”

Wilbur said she feels vulnerable about the exhibit, which includes photos that are not necessarily her favorites.

“It’s scary to be honest, but if we aren’t, were not being honest for the next generation.”

Wilbur, a graduate of the Brooks Institute of Photography, has displayed her work previously at the Seattle Art Museum and other museums.

Eventually, Tacoma Art Museum officials hope to publish a book of Wilbur’s photos and help curate a traveling exhibit that would tour internationally.

“People are seeing that what Matika is doing is very important,” Hushka said. “I see it as art for the betterment of society. That’s my secret agenda.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

See ‘Project 562’

“Photographic Presence and Contemporary Indians: Matika Wilbur’s Project 562” runs through Oct. 5 at the Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma. Call 253-272-4258. More information can be found at www.tacomaartmuseum.org.

To read Gale Fiege’s original story about Matika Wilbur and Project 562 and see a gallery of more photos from the project, go to tinyurl.com/HeraldProject562.

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