Hearing Culture

Photographer Matika Wilbur is on a journey to depict Native American women in their own worlds and to offer insights into their lives
Photo by Matika WilburPhoto by Matika Wilbur
Harvard Arts Blog
May 11, 2016
By Olivia Munk '16

Photographer Matika Wilbur lights up talking about the women in her images in Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Stories of Native American Women, on view through May 28 in the Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery of Byerly Hall at the Radcliffe Institute. Her smile widens as she shares the memories of time spent with the women in Native American territories across the country. She is equally given to a somber air as she describes the sobering realities that inspired her to begin her project.

Wilbur, a celebrated photographer who is from the Tulalip and Swinomish tribes of Washington, is currently in her third year of visiting each of the (now more than) 562 federally recognized Native American tribes. She began her journey – Project 562 ­– after teaching in a tribal school and realizing that there was no comprehensive source from which to teach her students properly about Native American history. In five years of teaching, Wilbur and her colleagues had 19 students die from unnatural deaths, such as shootings and drug overdoses. Wilbur immediately saw a dire need to show her students uplifting and positive images of indigenous people. 

Leaving her apartment and most of her possessions behind in Seattle, Wilbur hit the road in her RV (affectionately named “Big Girl”) and set out to visit each of the 562 (now around 569) Native American tribes. Wilbur’s travels have been funded mainly by a Kickstarter, and she maintains a meticulously updated blog and Instagram filled with stories, images and mini documentaries of the people and places she visits. Since beginning the project, she has visited more than 300 tribes, and estimates that she has about two years left until she completes her goal. 

The selection of photography from the project on display at Radcliffe (part of the Initiative on Native and Indigenous Peoples, and presented in collaboration with the Harvard University Native American Program) is a striking collection depicting subjects in color, with a de-saturated black-and-white background. Combined with the sharpness of Wilbur’s photography, and the steady stream of soft audio of songs, stories and prayers played over a speaker system, the gallery feels is alive with the presence of these women. 

Wilbur speaks passionately about the women she has met – professors, activists, mothers and daughters who are engaged in the fight to preserve Native American culture across the country. In her travels, she relies on the kindness of residents of to house her for the duration of her stay, and to introduce her to other members and important local aspects of their tribe. In some locations, she stays one day to shoot her images; in other cases, she stays for weeks. In the course of Project 562, Wilbur developed what she calls the “Indigenous Photography Method,” in which she ensures that she asks her subjects what stories they want to tell, and that they are photographed in a location of their choosing.

Though she can speak at length about each of the stories these women have told her – stories of violence, abuse, poverty, struggles to fund the teaching of native languages and rejoicing the victories that have come out of fervent activism to preserve Native American culture across the U.S. – it is clear in both her words and her photography that she takes the utmost care in preserving these anecdotes as the women’s own lives and experiences. 

As Wilbur succinctly says, “I want to leave my sitters with the feeling that they were heard.”

Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Stories of Native American Women runs through May 28 in the Johnson-Kulukundis Gallery in Byerly Hall,  Radcliffe Yard. The gallery is open Monday-Saturday, noon- 5 p.m. Free and open to the public.

Interested in being an intern during Wilbur’s photography and travels? Email info@project562.com for more information.

Search Year: 
2016