Native American Artist Focuses Lens on Women’s Rights

Photo by Helen YuPhoto by Helen Yu
The Harvard Crimson
April 29, 2016
By Lena R. Episalla and Aziz B. Yakub

Native American artist Matika Wilbur addressed issues of cultural marginalization and the violation of women’s rights in indigenous populations through her photography exhibition at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study on Thursday.

The Institute hosted the exhibition in partnership with the Harvard University Native American Program as part of Radcliffe’s Initiative on Native and Indigenous Peoples, a series of programming consisting of lectures, conferences, exhibitions, seminars, and archival research focused on the study of indigenous peoples.

Wilbur, a member of the Tulalip and Swinomish tribes in Washington state, is the creator of Project 562, a collection of her work from photographs of each of the then 562—now 566—federally recognized tribes in the United States. The Radcliffe exhibition, titled “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Stories of Native American Women,” is a hand-picked selection from the project focused on native and indigenous women in honor of Radcliffe’s historical affiliation with women.

“In our exhibition, the portraits and stories of Native American women are here to tell you their own stories,” Wilbur said. “Native women’s suffering and loss are part of the indigenous value that must be respected, it must be a concern to us all. I though, have found a treasure trove of knowledge, strength and vision.”

Wilbur was inspired to begin her work on Project 562 to address the misrepresentation of Native Americans in American culture.

Yukio Lippit, a professor of History of Art and Architecture, lauded Wilbur’s work.

“She began to develop a monumental aspiration that has led to her work today to help develop a body of imagery and cultural representations of native peoples to counteract the relentlessly incipient, one-dimensional cultural stereotypes,” he said. “To create, in her own words, positive indigenous role models to do justice to the richness, diversity, and lived experiences of Indian country.”

Wilbur's project evolved to include the social injustice and resulting political and economic hardship she discovered throughout her travels to native communities, she said, pointing to what she described as the abuse and exploitation of indigenous women as a focal point of her exhibit.

“These experiences articulate our current socioeconomic situation. Native American women are the most victimized in the country,” Wilbur said, citing statistics that indicate high instances of sexual assault and domestic abuse among Native American women. “For most native women, it is not a question of if, but when.”

Wilbur also advocated for educational reform to combat the academic challenges endured by indigenous students. According to her, Native students also have a very high rate of dropping out of high school.

“It might be time to create nurturing environments for our Indian students to succeed,” she said.

Kostas Koutsioumpas, a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, admired that Wilbur’s work not only addressed both the socio-political hardships native communities suffer but also conveyed their spirituality.

“Apart from integrating the cultural genocide that has been happening, it also integrates the ability to have a strong resilience and the empowerment of people who manage to keep their own identity,” Koutsioumpas said.

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2016