Photographer Matika Wilbur, a member of the Swinomish Indian Tribe and Tulalip Tribe, had a dream to photograph members from all 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States in an effort to preserve their legacies and tell their stories through art.
She calls it Project 562 — and this dream is becoming a reality.
It all started in December 2012 when Wilber sold everything inside her Seattle apartment, packed her camera, boots and film into her “war pony” (a.k.a. her Honda Civic) and set out on the open road.
Since that day she’s driven 80,000 miles all over the West capturing the distinct faces from more than 183 tribes and counting. While she’s been traveling asphalt trails — sometimes feeling a tinge of loneliness — the support of her endeavor keeps her fired up. Her Kickstarter campaign was started with a goal of raising $54,000. After word got out about the project on NPR and NBC, her campaign raised more than $182,690. She’s also attracted a publishing deal with University of Washington Press and will have an exclusive exhibit at Tacoma Art Museum starting May 17.
“I believe that we can change the way Native Americans are represented in mass media. We can make a conscious choice to reshape the way that we imagine Indian Country,” she said to a packed room at the Tacoma Art Museum on Feb. 16, 2014. The people were there to celebrate her project.
As she spoke, images of “famous” Native Americans in the media were projected, like Disney’s scantily dressed “Pocahontas” cartoon character, a shirtless Taylor Lautner who played “Jacob” in The Twilight movies and an image of the Cleveland Indians mascot. “These are the predominate images that represent Native Americans,” she said. ”These images do not celebrate individuality. They do not honor our people. These are not images I would like my nephews to measure themselves to.
“When society only has these images, it means that our modern issues don’t exist … We have sophisticated tribal governments and communities, but how can we ever be seen as modern, successful people if we are continually represented as the leathered and feathered vanishing race?”
Before her Tacoma Art Museum presentation began, two women from the Tulalip Tribe walked to the front of the room to sing a blessing song. The Native American audience members quickly rose to their feet and the rest of the audience took note and followed. As the echoing song came to a close in the small industrial space, the Native American audience members stood in silence while a few people clapped, then looked around quietly and bashfully stopped. A blessing song is often a spiritual prayer.
As Wilbur approached the podium, she took a deep breath.
“I thought like 10 people were going to come, so I’m kind of nervous,” she said looking out on the large, diverse crowd. “I am so grateful for each and every one of you.”
Then she showed the crowd some of the striking and beautiful images she has captured so far. One of her photos was of a woman standing poised on a barren dirt road lined with black, leafless trees. She’s wearing a silver belt between her pink blouse and long flowing skirt. A cross dangles from her right ear. “I look for our heroes,” says Wilbur, and explains that the woman in the photos is Gloria Grant, the Associate Superintendent of Chinle Unified School District in Arizona. Wilbur calls the district the “heart of the Navajo Nation.” Its high school is the largest primary Native American public high school in the U.S.
She changes slides to a photo of former political activist and well-known poet and musician John Trudell with his son in their urban neighborhood in San Francisco. Trudell participated in the Indians of All Tribes takeover of Alcatraz in 1969 and helped lead the American Indian Movement for years until his pregnant wife, three kids and mother-in-law all died in a suspicious house fire shortly after a protest in 1979. After that, he retreated from the political spotlight and his poetry and music became his new outlet.
After showing several other images of inspiring Native Americans, Wilbur talked about how the project has impacted her.
“I’ve been traveling, shooting and collecting stories for a little over a year now and the experience has changed me. I’m not the same as I was before. I have a renewed feeling of hope. I’ve become attached to the sentiment that I stand on the shoulders of giants,” she said.
While Project 562 is still young and incomplete, it’s become a giant. Its creator even hopes to create an interactive map called, “Where’s Matika?” The tremendous amount of support Wilbur has attracted for her project has surpassed her highest expectations. The Kickstarter campaign is a clear indicator of how special Wilbur’s project is not only to her, but to many people.
Tacoma Art Museum Curator Rock Hushka says Wilbur’s work will help all Americans better understand their roots.
“We cannot understand our history, we cannot understand ourselves as Americans or Northwesterners without understanding our 562 other nations that helped build the United States,” he said. While most curators show their recognition for an artist by mounting their work on museum walls, Hushka has taken his support one step further.
“I’m a curator, I don’t make a lot of money,” he said. “But I’m going to throw in $500 to help start the ball rolling this afternoon.” The audience applauded and other supporters started to shuffle around the room. One woman even raised her hand to ask, “What if I want to write a check now and not go online?”
For Marti Hilyare of the Puyallup Tribe, Wilbur’s project is far more than an artistic journey. It’s a reflection of a challenging history and an inspiring future.
“ makes me cry with pain, it makes me hopeful, it makes me so proud of you and of all the survival that we’ve gone through and I thank you deeply,” she said to Wilbur, holding back tears.
Project 562 has already united hundreds. From the Native Americans Wilbur has photographed to the different faces that gathered at TAM on that chilly February afternoon, this project continues to weave the human spirit together — adding something fresh, delicate and honest — through photographs and stories that will live on.
Perhaps the next time there’s a blessing song we’ll all know to rise to our feet and remember the giants who first called this country home.