Photographing Native America – Matika Wilbur

by Monica Brown, Tulalip News Writer

Imagine using photography to change cultural stereo types of Native Americans in a society that currently glorifies the Native American as a tomahawk-wielding sports mascot, a feather clad underwear model, a provocative Halloween costume or a drunken advertising pun.

Matika Wilbur
Matika Wilbur

Matika Wilbur, a Tulalip and Swinomish native, developed Project 562 and is using her talent of photography to counteract these active and misconstrued perceptions.

“My project is dedicated to photographing every tribe in the U.S. to breakdown the historical inaccuracies and stereotypical ways that we are represented in mass media.”

Wilbur’s portraits depict the contemporary Native American in a generic setting; the portraits are in black and white with little distraction to put emphasis on the Native American as person within the evolving U.S. culture.

Wilbur, a former fashion photography major, as stated in Indian CountryToday, earned a bachelor’s degree in photography at Brooks Institute. Indian country stated that, “She had a change of heart after participating in a commercial shoot in Los Angeles. The resources expended to produce a single photo for a clothing ad — a rented house in Malibu, art director, hair and makeup person, publicist, three photographers, for a photo “I could have done for $5” — got her thinking: “This is what my life was going to be like. What kind of meaning did it have in the long run?””

“Can we relearn to see as human beings? Does the photographic image impact our lives and the lives of those around us and if it does can we use that image to encourage and inspire one another?” queries Wilbur in a recent TedX talk.

Currently in the fashion industry the Native American façade is being used in a sexual and/or irrelevant manner which debases the culture as it being attached to groups of people. There is a human disassociation that generates from these images; one that causes outsiders to view these people as objects rather than a culture.

“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,” Matika quoted in her project blog at The end result will be a compilation of portraits of the contemporary Native American instead of “the leathered and feathered vanishing race” stereo type of Native American.

For phase one of her project, Wilbur was able to raise $35,000 through Kickstarter to help fund her journey. This year’s goal, for phase two, that bar has been set higher at $54,000 to be raised by Feb 14th 2014.

One of the many reward options for donating to Project 562 kickstarter
One of the many reward options for donating to Project 562 kickstarter

For information about Project 562 and to donate visit her page or Donators will receive rewards based on the amount they pledge. Rewards range from stickers and clothing labeled Project 562 to having the opportunity to spend time with photographer Matika Wilbur while she is on the road.

Currently, Wilbur is on the road in Arizona traveling by car to each reservation. In the past year she has photographed 173 tribes with just under 400 left. On May 17th and 23rd of this year a collection of Wilbur’s works will be on display at the Tacoma Art Museum and she has stated she will be in attendance to the art showing.

Wilbur has been taking photographs for over 10 years and some of her inspiration comes from photographers such as Phil Borges, Dorothea Lange and Coast Salish artists Shaun Peterson and Simon Charlie whose works she experienced through her mother’s La Conner art gallery.

Project 562 is estimated to be a 3 year project with a deadline set for the end of 2015. Upon conclusion, the compilation or portraits will be viewable across the U.S. Wilbur looks forward to being able to come home and work within her tribal community when her project is complete.

5 More Native American Visionaries in Washington State

Richard Walker, Indian Country Today Media Network

As the holidays kick in and people start looking ahead to the coming year, it is only fitting to acknowledge the leaders who will take Indian country into the future. Last month we brought you five Native leaders who are protecting rights, exercising sovereignty, building intercultural bridges and meeting future energy needs, among other accomplishments.

RELATED: 5 Visionaries Who See a Brighter Future for Indian Country

Now we bring five more who are rocking the world with their forward thinking, their innovation and their sense of social justice. With 29 of the 566 federally recognized indigenous nations located in what is now Washington State, the Evergreen State is a hotbed of visionary ideas.

1. Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish Tribe: Political and Environmental Leader

Brian Cladoosby
Brian Cladoosby

The Swinomish Tribe chairman and recently elected president of the National Congress of American Indians has been at the forefront of calls to study and adapt to climate change, especially in Indian Country. During his chairmanship of the Swinomish, Cladoosby developed an initiative to determine how climate change may affect coastal communities, assess the possible impacts and develop an action plan, including coastal protection measures and development code changes.

RELATED: Brian Cladoosby Is President of National Congress of American Indians  

Cladoosby collaborated with the U.S. Geological Survey to launch the Canoe Journey Water Quality Project. Canoes participating in the journey carry probes that collect information on water temperature, salinity, pH levels, dissolved oxygen and turbidity in the Salish Sea. The data is used to identify and map possible sources of water quality degradation.

RELATED: Swinomish Chairman Cladoosby Honored

Under Cladoosby’s leadership the Swinomish have reclaimed lands, including environmentally sensitive lands and tidelands, lost during the allotment era or by executive order—Kiket Island in 2009, and this year more than 250 acres that had been removed from the reservation by the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant.

The Swinomish Police Department is the first tribal police department in Washington state to earn state accreditation, giving it the same authority as municipal departments to enforce state law.

“A visionary dedicated to serving the needs of his people, Brian brings together a strong focus on environmental stewardship, productive dialogue, and spiritual connectedness,” Ecotrust wrote of Cladoosby in bestowing its 2012 Indigenous Leadership Award.

RELATED: Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award Honors Five, Welcomes Them to Rising Leadership Network

2. Tracy Rector, Seminole/Choctaw: Taking the Art of Storytelling Digital

Tracy Rector (Photo: Lou Karsen)
Tracy Rector (Photo: Lou Karsen)

Rector’s Longhouse Media is using new media to give voice to a young generation of indigenous storytellers.

Longhouse Media teaches digital filmmaking and media skills to indigenous youth to foment self-expression, cultural preservation and social change. Since 2003, Native youth have created more than 20 short films that have screened on television and in national and international film festivals.

RELATED: Seventh SuperFly Film Workshop Wraps in Seattle

Native youth worked on the award-winning feature-length documentary March Point, which chronicles the journey of two young men as they investigate the impact of oil refineries on their community. Other films explored the significance of the canoe in the Coast Salish way of life, the impacts of domestic violence, the dangers of drug abuse among young people and the importance of leading by example, the negative affects of spreading rumors, the connection between eating healthily and living healthy, and hip-hop music and dance as a way of staying sober and making healthy choices.

“We believe in Native youth telling their own stories about life, culture, and community, and understand the power of this process to change peoples’ lives,” said Rector, who was appointed this year to the City of Seattle Arts Commission, writing on her website.

RELATED: 3 Washington Native Leaders, Quinault Adviser Named to Key Positions

3. Matika Wilbur, Tulalip/Swinomish: Erasing Stereotypes, Photo by Photo

Courtesy of Matika Wilbur
Courtesy of Matika Wilbur

Wilbur’s Project 562 is changing the way the world sees America’s First Peoples. One year into a three-year project photographing Native America, it is already spawning exhibits. Last June she participated in a prestigious TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in Seattle, speaking about “Surviving Disappearance, Re-Imagining & Humanizing Native Peoples.”

Wilbur is traveling across the U.S. by car and RV with her Mamiya film camera and Canon EOS 7D, with the mission to photograph people from every indigenous nation in America—peoples and cultures that are not only alive but also are thriving, a force in American life.

“People understand that we survived, but the stereotypes remain,” Wilbur said in an interview. She said her goal is to “build cultural bridges, abandon stereotypes, and renew and inspire our national legacy” and to reveal the enduring richness and complex variety of Native America.

“Our goal is to unveil the true essence of contemporary Native issues, the beauty of Native culture, the magnitude of tradition, and expose her vitality,” Wilbur states on her website.

RELATED: Photographer Matika Wilbur’s Three-Year, 562-Tribe Adventure

The number 562 represents the number of indigenous nations that were federally recognized when she began developing the project; there are now 566. “The number 562 is a ‘jumping-off point,’ if you will,” she said, adding that she intends to include people from non-recognized Nations as well.

The project is funded by donations generated mostly by a Kickstarter campaign. When completed, the work will comprise a book, exhibitions, lecture series, website and a curriculum.

RELATED: Video: Meet Matika Wilbur: She’s Coming to Your Nation Soon, Smile!

It’s the fourth major project by the social documentarian. Previously Wilbur photographed Coast Salish elders for the exhibit “We Are One People.” She put Native people in contemporary settings for the exhibit “We Emerge,” and photographed young Native people expressing their identities in modern ways in “Save the Indian and Kill The Man.”

Matika Wilbur: Indian Enough Photography Exhibit Opens in Ohio

4. Fawn Sharp, Quinault: Taking Tribes Global

Fawn Sharp
Fawn Sharp

Sharp has turned the Quinault Nation presidency into a bully pulpit on national and international issues. She has called for the seating of representatives of indigenous nations at the U.N.; doing so will foster dialogue to “eliminate violence against indigenous nations caused by rampant development which pollute lands and waters and force Indigenous Peoples out of their territories.”

RELATED: Fawn Sharp Calls for Seating of Indigenous Nations in United Nations

Sharp also called for establishment of a permanent indigenous body with authority to promote and monitor the rights of indigenous peoples; for an international conference on violence against indigenous women and children; and for U.N. members to formalize government-to-government negotiations between them and indigenous governments as a principal method for conflict resolution.

RELATED: The Quinault Nation’s New Era of International Diplomacy  

The federal government’s shutdown also came in her sights.

“Those who are responsible for this mismanagement will be held to account come election time,” she vowed at the time.

Sharp is a lawyer who serves as president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and regional vice president of the National Congress of American Indians.

“I spent many hours away from home and from my family carefully cultivating key relationships to build a positive, strong and respectable reputation for the Quinault Indian Nation,” she wrote this year in the Quinault newspaper, The Nugguam. “Developing such political muscle has opened doors for us that otherwise would not be open, giving us the credibility we need to … protect sovereignty, protect the environment, secure funding and open international trade opportunities.”

RELATED: Fawn Sharp: Conference Appreciated but ‘We Need More’

5. Gil Calac, Paiute: Getting Veterans Their Due

Gil Calac (Photo courtesy Valerie Calac)
Gil Calac (Photo courtesy Valerie Calac)

A Vietnam War veteran living on the Yakama Reservation, Calac’s tireless campaign is winning official recognition of, and starting the healing process for, his fellow Vietnam veterans.

When U.S. military personnel came home from Vietnam, many with injuries and memories that still haunt them decades later, there was no welcome.

“They were not treated like heroes as those who returned from Korea and World War II,” said Washington State Rep. Norm Johnson, R-Toppenish. “Instead, they were portrayed as baby killers, warmongers and other things.… That had a traumatic effect on these soldiers that is still painful to these days as many of them refuse to talk about their experiences.”

Calac’s efforts this year led to the adoption of State House Bill 1319, which establishes March 30 of every year as “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day” in Washington state. The bill, introduced by Johnson and co-sponsored by 38 state House members, was unanimously approved by the House and Senate.

RELATED: Native Warrior’s Efforts Lead Washington State to Observe Annual Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day

Thanks to Calec, all public buildings and schools are required to fly the POW/MIA flag every March 30.

The veteran’s compelling testimony moved legislators to act quickly on the bill. At a hearing before the Senate Committee on Governmental Operations, Calac said that Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day would help veterans “put away our guilt, the shame, the grief and despair,” and heal from the animosity veterans faced when they returned home.

Calac hopes to see Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day established nationwide.

RELATED: Natives Lead All Star Cast of Veterans at MLB Midsummer Classic