Documenting Native America

Matika Wilbur pushes back against stereotypes
Dr. Mary Evelyn Belgrade (Pueblo of Isleta and Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico). Photo by Matika Wilbur, Project 562Dr. Mary Evelyn Belgrade (Pueblo of Isleta and Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico). Photo by Matika Wilbur, Project 562
By Deborah Blagg

AN ACCLAIMED PHOTOGRAPHER, writer, and social documentarian, Matika Wilbur creates art that’s a strenuous counterpoint to mass media stereotypes of Native Americans. Through exhibits, social media, and lectures in the United States, Canada, and Europe, she offers a complex vision of contemporary Native American lives that has nothing in common with prevailing images that, in Wilbur’s words, “show us as people of the past: leathered, feathered, and disappearing fast.”

At Radcliffe this past spring, as part of the Initiative on Native and Indigenous Peoples, Wilbur spoke about a central challenge her art poses to non-Native audiences. “If you want our beauty,” she said, “you must also take our struggle.”

Since 2012, Wilbur, a member of the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes in Washington state, has been engaged in Project 562, an ambitious effort to photograph members of every federally recognized tribe in the United States and then make the images widely available. The project came to her while she was teaching visual arts to teenagers at Tulalip Heritage High School. “My students would ask me what a Cherokee or Seminole looked like, and the only photos I could find were damaging, inaccurate, or antiquated,” she recalled.

“I realized that we need images to inspire one another,” Wilbur said. In particular, she is concerned by the reported 67 percent Native American high-school graduation rate—the lowest of any racial or ethnic group. “We need images that will help us reconnect with our strengths.”

Matika Wilbur's exhibition opening, which took place in the Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery, drew conference participants and people from across New England. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerMatika Wilbur's exhibition opening, which took place in the Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery, drew conference participants and people from across New England. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff Photographer

At the opening of the Radcliffe exhibition Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Stories of Native American Women, which included some of Project 562’s photos, Yukio Lippit, Radcliffe’s Johnson-Kulukundis Family Faculty Director of the Arts and a Harvard professor of art history and architecture, described the “virtuoso technique and consummate craftsmanship” of Wilbur’s portraits. Text narratives and audio recordings of Wilbur’s interviews with the women accompanied the photos, amplifying, Lippit said, “the sadness and trauma of genocide and colonization, but also hope, determination, joy, and humor.”

People of the Tide

By April, Wilbur had traveled more than 150,000 miles for Project 562, crisscrossing the country by car, RV, train, plane, boat, horseback, and foot to photograph tribal members in contexts that were meaningful to them. Noting Wilbur’s Kickstarter funding, large online community, and custom of sharing food, prayers, stories, songs, and aspirations with the people she photographs, Lippit said she has “a remarkable way of being an artist in the contemporary world.”

Wilbur embarked on Project 562--named after the number of federally recognized tribes in the United States at the time--in December 2012. (The US government now recognizes 567 tribes.) Since then, she's visited nearly half of those tribes and taken thousands of photographs. Wilbur believes her project offers "authentic images and stories from within Native America," she says in her blog. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerWilbur embarked on Project 562--named after the number of federally recognized tribes in the United States at the time--in December 2012. (The US government now recognizes 567 tribes.) Since then, she's visited nearly half of those tribes and taken thousands of photographs. Wilbur believes her project offers "authentic images and stories from within Native America," she says in her blog. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerBut when asked to elaborate on her identity as an artist, Wilbur instead spoke about her grandmother’s successful fight to preserve Native fishing rights in Washington state. “I think of myself first as a person of the tides,” Wilbur said. “I never introduce myself as a photographer; I say that I am my grandmother’s granddaughter.” She explained, “I became a teacher because my elders asked me to take on that role. I take pictures of our people because our children need new narratives.”

Wilbur referred to historical trauma that manifests itself in contemporary social problems such as domestic and sexual abuse, addiction, and suicide in Native American communities. “Many of us never get healthy enough to advocate for the wellness and stewardship of our people and land,” she said. “But in my travels I meet inspiring community organizers, linguists, grandmothers, basket makers, scholars, entrepreneurs, and spiritual leaders who are determined to protect our culture and keep it from disappearing.”

“I want our children to know that they can grow up to be like those people,” she added. “That’s what my work is about.”

Search Year: 
2016