Quick: close your eyes and envision your own particular image of a Native American.
Perhaps you see a suede-clad girl frantically dancing around a fire; maybe an elder drenched in turquoise, bottle in hand; or worse, one of the many “cigar store Indians” still on display outside many a Santa Fe shop.
Photographer Matika Wilbur is out to change that.
On the road for the next three years, Wilbur took to crowdsourcing platform Kickstarter to fund Project 562—an endeavor that will see her traveling to every tribal nation in the country to document its peoples in an effort, she hopes, “will build cultural bridges, abandon stereotypes and renew and inspire our national legacy.”
It’s been over a century since such a photographic sojourn. In 1906, Edward S Curtis led a similar creative trek commissioned by JP Morgan to capture the “disappearing” race.
Some 10,000 miles and 70 tribes into her journey, Wilbur stopped in Santa Fe, where SFR caught up with her and asked about the eye-opening experiences she’s lived along the way.
SFR: What drew you to embark on this journey?
Wilbur: All of the work that I have done up until this point has prepared me for this project. I didn’t originally aspire to be a documentary photographer of Native American people. First, I went into celebrity photography in Los Angeles, and then I moved to New York, thinking I wanted to be a fashion photographer. Then, I moved to South America, where I started photographing indigenous people. I’d been there about a year when I had this dream involving my grandma, who passed on several years prior. I’d never had a dream with my grandma before. She asked me, ‘What are you doing photographing their Indians when you haven’t even photographed your own?’ I came home to Swinomish and I started asking my elders questions.
What were some of those questions?
What does it mean to be an Indian?’ which is how [my exhibit] We Are One People—a series of character-study portraits documenting Coast Salish elders—was born. The success from We Are One catapulted my career into projects that explore my ‘Indian-ness.’
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way?
1. Trust Indians to act like Indians. When I first set out on this journey, I was worried about what I might encounter. Would I find friends? Would everybody be different than me? Will they welcome me? Prior to departure, I knew that Coast Salish Natives sustain traditions, and cultural practices that include welcoming fellow tribesmen—though I didn’t know that most everybody practices these similar principles. I was wrong to have doubts. Indians have been overly kind and generous. They have fed me, housed me, hugged me and allowed me to photograph their culture. It has been an incredible lesson. We can trust our fellow Indians to follow cultural protocol, even if they are 5,000 miles away from our tribe.
2. Photograph ‘on the fly.’ I spend about three days at each tribe; this means that I have about two photo shoots per day. The luxury of spending eight hours preparing for one subject has surpassed. When I meet new Indians, I don’t know what environment I am going to be in. For example: Will there be sand in my frame? Will I be near the water? Will it be 100 degrees outside? I have learned to shoot in every imaginable variable, so this project has taught me that I can make a great image out of every situation, and that the most important element to storytelling is connecting with the subject.
3. We are all working toward the same goal. When I tell folks that I would like to use these images to change the way we are represented in mass media, they throw their hands up in the air and scream “AHO!” (the equivalent to hallelujah). Almost every Indian that I encounter can relate to feeling misrepresented—which is why I know that we are more the same than different.
What have you taken away from the project so far?
Most significantly, as a Native artist, I have been welcomed and allowed access to the intimate elements and pressing issues of contemporary Native American life long shielded from the mainstream: from photographing the Pechanga tribal culture bearer at the sequestered 2,000-year-old Great Oak in Riverside County, to hearing creation stories that have never reached mass audiences; from being exposed to volatile concerns in land and water rights controversies, to encountering firsthand the epidemic violence against Native women. Project 562 is a creative journey of arresting, unprecedented images and voices.
When are you planning to return to Santa Fe?
When I have an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.