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The Faces of My People

Photographer Matika Wilbur redefines contemporary Native life

August 20, 2014, 12:00 am

In the fall of 2012, newly single and with a distinct vision in mind, Matika Wilbur packed up her Seattle apartment, saddled up on her “war pony” (aka her Honda Civic), and embarked on a mission to photograph members of all 562 federally recognized Native American tribes (now 566). Life on the road—knocking on doors and crashing on couches—was a far cry from her fashion and celebrity photographer past.

Dr. Mary Evelyn Belgarde (Pueblo of Isleta and Ohkay Owingeh)
Matika Wilbur

The result was Project 562, a Kickstarter-funded project wherein Wilbur set out to “build cultural bridges, abandon stereotypes and renew and inspire our national legacy.”

It all began during a trip to South America where Wilbur started photographing indigenous locals. A year in, her grandmother appeared in a dream. A proverbial lightbulb went off and her path was set.

Century Linked


Shortly after the sixth grade, Edward S Curtis built his own camera and left school. In his teens, and nearing age 20, he became partner in a Seattle photography studio. His legacy would cement in 1906 after receiving funding from JP Morgan to document vanishing indigenous tribes. The epic project saw him traveling across the Western United States, visiting 80 tribes over a span of 20 years and taking some 40,000 photographs. This resulted in The North American Indian, a 20-volume set of books filled with imagery that has since been celebrated and dismissed for romanticizing the image of the “noble savage.” Above: Curtis’ portrait of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, who is said to have famously uttered the phrase, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever,” upon his surrender.

“I’d never had a dream with my grandma before,” Wilbur told SFR in April of last year, some 10,000 miles into her journey. “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.” Wilbur’s project, laden with work that can be simultaneously powerful, mundane and sublime with its collection of sepia-toned gelatin print tableaux, plays a reflective double duty as a documentation and more importantly for the artist, a path for inspiration she hopes younger generations, including her own students at Tulalip Heritage High School in Marysville, Wash., follow.

Recently, Wilbur set up a multidisciplinary exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum featuring 40 of her portraits accompanied by audio narratives from some of her sitters. This weekend, Wilbur returns to Santa Fe in conjunction with designer Bethany Yellowtail for Indian Market (booth #408 WA-E) to present “wearable art.” On Friday evening, the pair also participates in the Indigenous Fine Art Market’s “Prismatic” fashion show.

SFR: Is this the calm after the storm?
MW:The storm really just sort of continues. We’re preparing for more storms [laughs]. It’s been one thing after the next and then back on the road, and we’re preparing for another art show that is opening in February at San Francisco’s City Arts Building. We’re super excited to create dialogue in government spaces, so the storm continues.

What was it that motivated you to complete this undertaking?

You know, this undertaking has been a series of long events but mostly, I think working with the youth, I see a gap and that gap is in massive media.

Darkfeather, Bibiana and Eckos Ancheta (Tulalip)
Matika Wilbur

How would you like to see it evolve?

Our representation is always one of leather, feathers and people of the past. What needs to be there in its place is images that create hope and inspiration and give us something to look forward to.

Talk about the physical journey to complete Project 562 and some of the challenges you faced along the way.

The most challenging part was that my boyfriend and I broke up. We were together for like, six years, and I moved out of my apartment and felt rather displaced in being a 30-year-old woman and you know, the expectations that I should have a husband and a house. That’s been really hard for me—dealing with that personal stuff—and learning how to live life on the road.

Project 562 - Kickstarter Video from Paper Rocket Productions on Vimeo.

What were some of the stories that you encountered?

Everywhere that I’d go, there were stories that I wasn’t ready to hear; stories about water controversy, being pushed into the rocks, the desecration of sacred sites, uranium projects and oil projects and land energy projects that tribal governments have to fight hard to maintain their sovereignty. I wasn’t aware of these widespread issues because you have to seek that information. You have to be an active listener in that dialogue if you wanna know what’s going on in Indian Country, and sadly, before visiting these tribes, I wasn’t an active listener. I didn’t seek out the information properly so, now that I’m visiting these communities, it’s really opened my eyes as to how to look at some of these commonalities between us and [recognize] the areas that we can really put our efforts toward to create some change for our peoples’ well-being.

Robert and Fannie Mitchell (Diné)
Matika Wilbur

Describe your professional voyage from fashion and celebrity photographer to where you are now and getting in touch with what you referred to as your “Indian-ness.”

Did I say that? I didn’t mean to say that. It sounds like something I’d say but I didn’t mean it, though [laughs]. I would say I’ve been aware of that my entire life. The thing is, when you grow up in a tribal community, you don’t sit around the table and have conversations about what it means to be an indigenous person and what are those tribal values. We don’t have questions related to identity because it’s who we are. It’s not until we go into these exterior circumstances—we go away to college or go live in a city—that we suddenly have to explain our identity. There are people that have never met a Native American before, and they have these very far-fetched conceptions about what is Indian, mostly based on massive media.

"When you grow up in a tribal community, you don’t sit around the table and have conversations about what it means to be an indigenous person...we don’t have questions related to identity because it’s who we are."

How much does Edward Curtis’ project inform yours?

It doesn’t. When we discuss the fact that we’re misrepresented in media, we have to discuss Edward Curtis’ work because his work is the prevailing image of Native American identity. A lot of people have said that my work is a response to his or a lot of times I’m compared to him. I would prefer to not be compared to Curtis.

Why is that?

Because he did his work over 100 years ago, and he was this non-Indian man who in a lot of ways romanticized and mistold our story. In my approach, I aim to tell the story from an inside voice, which is why I don’t report on what people tell me. I do audio recordings and let them talk for themselves. As you walk through the exhibit, you can hear their voices from them. I don’t want to be a part of misappropriating or misrepresenting our peoples’ voice. I feel that in a lot of ways that’s happened over and over again, and I don’t want to do that.

In approaching your subjects, did you encounter any type of resistance?

I haven’t experienced that so far.

What made for a good subject?
I think rad Indian folks; positive movers and shakers who are creating change in their community. I received quite a bit of criticism for not taking a more journalistic approach and photographing some of the struggle of Indian Country, but in my approach I aim to create hope and inspiration. I think that we have enough images that talk about the poverty, the struggle, the suicide, and I don’t know if that actually helps our kids. One time I showed my students at the high school Aaron Huey’s TED Talk, and you should have seen how deflated they were afterwards. I saw it with my own eyes. I watched them deflate. Then I showed them some of Phil Borges’ work—these positive images of indigenous people from around the world—and they were so excited, they were so intrigued. So when I decided to take on this project, I decided that my images should also create hope and inspiration…the 1491s, state senators, congressmen, attorneys, doctors and people who are doing positive things so they can look at those images, hear their stories and think to themselves, ‘I can do that too.’

"In my approach I aim to create hope and inspiration. I think that we have enough images that talk about the poverty, the struggle, the suicide..."

There are so many stories out there about these very contemporary problems facing reservation living—suicide, dropout rates, teenage pregnancy. In broaching these subjects, did your project become political?

Everything is political. What isn’t political? People, they would like me to join in their issues and have a stronger voice. I support them, but I’m only one person and I have my head down. My days are the sort of days where I get up, I check my 300 emails, I answer, I return 10 phone calls, I go for a run, I try to find somewhere to eat and then I get in my car before 9 am, I drive to a new tribe. I meet with new people, I’m staying at their house, I interview them, I photograph them, I find a hotel to check-in to before 10 o’clock at night and then I do it all over again the next day. I’m in the crux of my work right now, so I’m not able to be a voice for a lot of these political issues in the way that I would like to be. But we have people like that, people like Winona LaDuke, who are able to dedicate their time to creating social change through large political divisions, and I hope to photograph her [laughs]. That’s my role.

Kumu Olelo Kaeo Izon, Honolulu, Hawai’i
Matika Wilbur

What was your experience shooting in and around Santa Fe?

I got to go to IAIA, and I got to photograph the director, Ron Solimon. We just had the most interesting conversation about art and the work that he’s done for his pueblo, and I’ve been so inspired when I’ve been in New Mexico because the culture is so rich and the tradition is so vibrant. The people have been so lovely and kind and welcoming. Valerie Taliman in Albuquerque hosted me and showed me the most wonderful time; Mary Evelyn Belgarde from the Pueblo of Isleta and Ohkay Owingeh. I received so much kindness and hospitality in New Mexico, it was lovely.

Looking back on the project and what you achieved with it, what do you take away from it the most?

I’ve been so touched by the kindness and humanity that I’ve encountered. People have just really embraced me and taken really good care of me. Here I am, this lone vagabond wandering around, attempting to take photos of people, and I’ve experienced nothing but hospitality and generosity. I didn’t think I’d ever experience that much goodness because I, like most people in this country, had fallen victim to pessimism and distrust in our American people.

Would you do it again?

The last time we spoke, you planned on coming back to Santa Fe when you got your own MoCNA exhibit. Any developments on that?

Well, we haven’t made any further progression. It’s still in discussion. We’ll see how it goes when I visit with people.

Project 562 images courtesy of the artist.
Lens crafter: Since succesfully launching a Kickstarter campaign in October 2012, Matika Wilbur (Swinomish/Tulalip), right, has documented close to 200 tribes and logged 80,000 miles.


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