POV

Matika Wilbur- Project 562

Matika Wilbur is a talented photographer who captures not only beautiful film portraits of Native Americans nationwide but she is also about setting the record straight. Read the exclusive interview for Citizen Brooklyn.

Interview by Lora Wiley all photos by Matika Wilbur

 

Photo: Matika Wilbur

Photo: Matika Wilbur

Your own ancestry includes Swinomish and Tulalip tribes from the Pacific Northwest. Were you brought up knowing the history and traditions of these cultures?
Yes.

Photo: Matika Wilbur

Photo: Matika Wilbur

What is the significance of the number 562 in the project?
562 represents the number of “federally recognized” tribes that I would like to visit, however, my intention is not to be exclusive… the number 562, is a “jumping off point”, if you will. I do not plan on limiting myself exclusively to federally recognized tribes; for a variety of reasons — adverse federal court decisions, the plenary power of Congress, being landless — it is tougher for these un-recognized tribes which do not have the legal history of the “treaty tribes”, and I am not a stranger to that struggle. However, most people don’t know that there are 562 federally recognized tribes (which has changed to 566 in the last few years), and it has been my observation that the general stereo-type is that we haven’t survived. And so, giving power to a number was important to me- even though finding an accurate number is difficult, given the ever changing political climate. It’s so complex…

Photo: Matika Wilbur

Photo: Matika Wilbur

Describe the goal of the project.
For the past year I have been fulfilling the project’s goal of photographing citizens of each federally recognized tribe in the United States (there are now 566). Most of the time, I’ve been invited to geographically remote reservations to take portraits and hear stories from a myriad of tribes, while at other times I’ve photographed members of the 70 percent of Native Americans living in urban settings. My hope, is that when the project is complete, it will serve to educate the nation and shift the collective consciousness toward recognizing our own indigenous communities. Imagine walking through an exhibit and realizing the complex variety of contemporary Native America. Imagine experiencing a website or book, that offered insight into every Tribal Nation in the United States. What if you could download previously untold histories and stories from Apaches, Swinomish, Hualapai, Northern Cheyenne, Tlingit, Pomo, Lumbee, and other first peoples? What if you had heard those stories in grade school? Project 562 is making all this happen. Project 562 creatively addresses and remedies historical inaccuracies, stereotypical representations, and the absence of Native American images and voices in mass media and the national consciousness. I believe that there is an open space that is yet to be filled- that space is authentic images and stories from within Native America. My work aims to humanize, the otherwise “vanishing race”, and share the stories that our people would like told. In this respectful way, I have been welcomed into hundreds of tribal communities, and I have found that people welcome Project 562, because they are ready to see things change. Conversations about tribal sovereignty, self-determination, wellness, recovery from historical trauma, and revitalization of culture will accompany the photos in captions, video, and audio recordings. The time of sharing, building cultural bridges, abolishing racism and honoring the legacy that this country is built on is among us. Project 562 is that platform.

Photo: Matika Wilbur

Photo: Matika Wilbur

To start this project, you sold all your possessions and left your home behind. Was there ever a time you regretted this?
I have had moments of weakness. Moments where I have felt overwhelmed by the immensity of the task that I have taken on. At times I am exhausted, and miss the familiarity of Seattle’s rain, my down comforter and family and community involvement; but then I am welcomed into a new community- I am offered important stories, and I am restored by the hope that Project 562 creates.

Photo: Matika Wilbur

Photo: Matika Wilbur

For over a year you’ve been on the road living out of your Honda you call your “War Pony”. How hard has that been?
It varies depending on the day.

I read you will be upgrading to a van soon. Will this be a “War Pony” as well or will it have a different name, like “War Buffalo”?
You’re funny.

Photo: Matika Wilbur

Photo: Matika Wilbur

You’ve often slept on people’s couches. How is the hospitality of the Native American culture differ from others?
We are all human beings. All of the five-fingered beings have treated me well, both native and non-native. I don’t like to draw lines in the sand and say that one is different from the other. I have received hospitality from Natives because those are people I seek for this project, though I have also stayed with non-natives who have been equally hospitable. I think it is easy to fall victim to fear- We are told to fear of our fellow human beings (especially when we watch the news too often), but we don’t have to be afraid of one another. We may look different on the outside, but we are more alike than different. We want to support one another. We want to be a part of something greater. We want to make this world better for the next generation. And I think that is a human desire. That is the goal of Project 562—to help to create a paradigm shift in the our collective consciousness that recognizes the existence of contemporary Native America, which will in turn support our efforts for sovereignty, nation building, and elevating our tribal communities. I would like my nephews to live in a world without racism. I have to believe that is possible.

Photo: Matika Wilbur

Photo: Matika Wilbur

What does “walking the Red Road” mean?
It means that I do not walk down two paths. I do not pray in the morning light, and dwell in the shadows in the evenings seeking comfort from drugs and alcohol. I do my best to treat myself, and all other living things as though they are sacred. I do my best to walk on that good path (as opposed to only thinking about it, or just talking about it.) It means that I pray for my food, I give thanks daily, I find forgiveness, I let go of fear, I dance, I participate when possible, I respect my ancestors, my elders and my family, I walk with dignity and honor and I give away that which I receive. That is the way that I understand “walking the Red Road”. Others may describe it differently. There are books about it. You can read them.

Photo: Matika Wilbur

Photo: Matika Wilbur

Native Americans were (and are) extraordinarily connected to nature on so many levels absent today in mainstream culture. Has your journey brought you together with nature in a different way than before?
I have felt incredibly blessed on this journey, and a lot of that has to do with my connection to the land, the spirit and my ancestors. I believe that we are the manifestation of our ancestors’ prayers. Our people survived the genocide. We survived relocation. We refuse termination. And we are doing our best to move beyond assimilation and the pressures of extinction. Each new generation takes on the responsibility of carrying forward the work of our ancestors past. We make a choice: Will we forget where we came from? Or will we do our best to protect our sovereignty and elevate our Tribal Nations? I know that throughout my lifetime, I will be required to rededicate and recommit to answering that question in an honorable way; but through my current work, I aim to offer that enduring richness, strength, resilience, and tenacity of our survival. Sometimes Rez life, (or any life,) can be hard. Sometimes it can seem hopeless. In an effort to counteract that hopelessness, I would like my photographs to offer some form of hope…

Photo: Matika Wilbur

Photo: Matika Wilbur

You’ve said: “I constantly question how do I as a young Tribal person fit into society. A Society of capitalism, materialism and stimulus packages…yet at the same time honor the ways of my ancestors?” Have you any answers so far?
Yes. I talk about it on my blog: www.matikawilbur.com/blog

Do you think the concept of ‘reservation’ is obsolete and actually an obstacle towards a better integration of Native Americans into mainstream society?
People still live on reservations… many identify that land as their home. It’s slightly offensive to imply that Native American’s should have to integrate into mainstream society, as though it is somehow superior to the life that they live right now. Please do read “Custer Died For Your Sins” by Vine Deloria. 

Photo: Matika Wilbur

Photo: Matika Wilbur

In your observations and experience growing up on a reservation, what is the biggest difference between Native Americans still living on reservations and those in urban settings?
I am not able to generalize in that way.
What is the most surprising thing you have learned so far?
People are incredibly kind.
You chose to shoot this project on film, instead of digital. What have been the challenges?
Film is expensive.
In choosing your subjects, do you have them in place before you arrive at your destinations or do you improvise on the spot?
Improvise.
The humanity of each person jumps out of these stunning photos.The viewer is immediate engaged. How long did it take to develop a rapport with your subject to get that result?
As long as it took. Sometimes a few hours. Sometimes a few days.
As an artist and looking toward the bigger arc of your career, any fear of being stereotyped as a photographer of Native American culture?
I already have been stereotyped. It’s unfortunate, but I don’t have time to be concerned. I just keep working.
Tell us what is next for the project and how the public can help you get there.
I will be offering an TEDx talk in NYC dedicated to the topic, “Agents of Change” on Friday, March 28, 2014 from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM (EDT)
To learn more, please visit: TEDx The best part is that the tickets are free! Hooray! You can get them here: TED TKT

While we are visiting New York, we would like reach out to the local tribal communities and do some Project 562 photo-shooting. Here is the list of tribes we hope to visit: 1. Tuscarora Nation . 2. Oneida Indian Nation of New York . 3. St. Regis Mohawk Council Chiefs . 4. Onondaga Nation . 5. Seneca Nation of Indians 6. Cayuga Indian Nation . 7. Tonawanda Band of Senecas 8. Poospatuck 9. Shinnecock

We are seeking recommendations for people for us to reach out to…. We’re Looking for artists, activists, culture bearers, positive role models (and other rad ndn folks) to interview/photograph for Project 562. (We’re also looking for cozy sleeping situations:) Please email marlon@project562.com if you have suggestions!

We have a show approaching at The Tacoma Art Museum on May 17, 2014 Like us on facebook Follow our travel log at www.matikawilbur.com/blog

Photo: Matika Wilson

Photo: Matika Wilson

Photo: Matika Wilbur

Photo: Matika Wilbur

Photo: Matika Wilbur

Photo: Matika Wilbur

One Response to “Matika Wilbur- Project 562”

  1. patty detzer says:

    BEAUTIFUL and inspiring