Matika Wilbur hit the road in November 2012. The photographer was on a mission: to make portraits of members from each of the federally-recognized tribes in the United States, which numbered 562 at the time. Inspired by a dream she had in the mountains of Peru and funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, Wilbur inaugurated Project 562 by visiting 13 tribes in California. Since then she has crisscrossed the country multiple times, been invited to the White House, exhibited locally and nationally, and photographed individuals from more than 250 of the tribes on her list, which now numbers 566.
Her goal is to provide a new canon of Native American representation based not on old and lingering stereotypes but on the reality of contemporary American Indian experience. “In my work I seek and photograph positive indigenous role models from this century,” she said in a TED talk she delivered in Seattle in 2014. Her lens has documented native scholars, musicians, teachers, farmers, culture keepers, chiefs, and children, among many others. The portraits she captures are honest, unvarnished, beautiful. And they’ve made an impression.
Her work has been covered extensively in the press, with articles appearing in numerous media outlets including The New York Times, and, most recently, O, The Oprah Magazine. The Project 562’s Facebook page has nearly 12,000 likes and she has given more keynote addresses to universities and cultural organizations than she can count. Her work has been featured in The Tacoma Art Museum, with exhibits coming up in Harvard, the Silva Gallery in New Jersey, and the Fenimore Art Museum in Upstate New York. Currently, 42 of her portraits are on view at the Hibulb Cultural Center in Tulalip.
The show at the Hibulb is a homecoming of sorts for Wilbur, who is a Native American woman of the Swinomish and Tulalip Tribes and a graduate of La Conner High School. The exhibit focuses on the idea of home and is titled, “Natural Wanderment: Stewardship. Sovereignty. Sacredness.” As stated on the introductory gallery panel, the photos are a tribute to “the most important truth Wilbur has discovered on her journey to-date—that ancestral land is the basis of Native American identity.”
Indeed, many of the black-and-white and hand-colored silver gelatin prints appear to have two subjects: a tribal member in the foreground and the land of their ancestors behind them. “I have had to experience for myself the incredible range of homelands of tribal nations,” Wilbur said, “to interact with peoples in their ancient territories is to grasp how the connection to natural places makes us who we are.”
This deep connection to the land has important implications not only for Native American identity, but also for the stewardship of ecologically fragile areas that have been nurtured and held sacred by tribes for generations.
But the relationship between person and land is only partially brought to life by Wilbur’s photos, exceptional though they are. The rest of the story is told through the interview excerpts that Wilbur has collected along the way, and the profiles of people and tribes, which are an integral part of the exhibition. Wilbur, whose first name means messenger in her tribal language, pairs each portrait with an accompanying text that underscores the meaning and message of the work.
These stories are powerful. They speak to prejudice, autonomy, identity, pride, joy, sorrow, and, most of all, to the centrality of the natural world and ancestral land to the experience of being Native American.
There is Chief Bill James of Lummi Nation standing on the shores of the Sound. His story is about preservation: “I believe in protecting this territory, because the spirits are always with us.” There is Charlotte Logan of the Mohawk Tribe, a molecular and cellular biologist, framed by a vast sky. Her story is about returning to her roots: “Knowing that there is something sacred about this place grounds me. I can look up and see that mountain every day, and it reminds me who I am.” Michael Frank of the Miccosukee. His story is about respect. Desi Small Rodriguez of the Northern Cheyenne. Her story is about strength.
Their words, and the words of the 38 others included in the exhibition, resonate alongside the portraits. Wilbur is helping to create a powerful new narrative and legacy of representation for Native Americans. One photo at a time.