By WHITNEY RICHARDSON - February 19, 2014
Below: Anna Cook. Tribes: Swinomish,
Hualapai, Chemehuevi and Skowlitz
It started with a dream. Matika Wilbur’s great-grandmother, who had died years before, was urging her to return home.
Ms. Wilbur had been traveling across South America documenting indigenous communities, far from her family’s land on the Swinomish Reservation in Washington, a small Native American community one hour north of Seattle. The night of her dream, her grandmother told her that it was time to return to the reservation and photograph her people.
There had been many times since childhood that Ms. Wilbur struggled with her identity as an indigenous person in a world that she felt viewed her people as relics. The question she grappled with most: What did it mean in the 21st century to be Indian enough?
“As I got older, all of these questions about myself and my role with my people began to surface,” recalled Ms. Wilbur, 29, who spent most of her childhood attending public school in La Conner, a predominantly white, middle-class town. “I knew that the only way I was going to understand was by asking these questions to my people. I had a lot of questions.”
What started as a small project on her community’s elders has since morphed into an ambitious attempt to document citizens of each of the more than 560 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States. She has driven more than 60,000 miles to meet with native people: doctors and tribal leaders, artists and entertainers. She wants the endeavor, called Project 562, to be an extensive and accurate visualization of Native Americans, offering a perspective often missing from American history lessons.
“People often ask me why I don’t photograph real Indians,” said Ms. Wilbur, who marked documenting her 180th tribe in Phoenix last week. “But the people that I photograph are real Indians. These are my people.”
Matika WilburMary Evelyn. Tribe: Ohkay Owingeh and Isleta Pueblos.
The “real” Indians Ms. Wilbur referred to were often portrayed in romanticized images most are used to seeing — quaint people in feathered headdresses, wrapped in colorful blankets or clutching bows and arrows.
Her work often sparks a conversation about Edward Curtis, the portrait photographer who, a century earlier, embarked on a mission to photograph native people of the American West. But Ms. Wilbur said the differences between their works are stark — Mr. Curtis, a white male who carried his own props to shoots, often paired tools and clothing from the wrong tribes. He also did not know the names of many of his subjects.
The other day in Arizona, Ms. Wilbur noticed an image by Mr. Curtis displayed in her hotel’s lobby. The subject, a Pima woman, stood gracefully, wrapped in a blanket and holding a basket native to another tribe. Ms. Wilbur’s voice was tinged with exasperation as she recounted the incident, noting how some Indians mistakenly identify with images like that.
“I can see the importance of Curtis’s work,” she said. “But the inaccuracy of how we are portrayed just doesn’t seem fair.”
With Project 562 — the number of federally recognized tribes when she started — she only asks her subjects to be photographed outdoors on indigenous land. It is challenging, since weather and lighting are as unpredictable as where her subjects choose to be photographed is. She has waded through icy water, flown in a helicopter over the Grand Canyon and driven thousands of miles. After printing her images, she hand colors sections with oil paint to emphasize certain parts.
Her project would not be a reality if not for the support that she has received from her community and those interested in her mission. In the final days of her second Kickstarter campaign, it has raised almost $170,000 — more than $100,000 beyond her original goal.
At the completion of the project, she plans to create a moving photo exhibit, accompanied by a book, photographs, video and geographical mapping features to pinpoint tribes across the country. A collection of her images and audio interviews will be on display at The Tacoma Art Museum in May.