October 23, 2015 at the Hibulb Cultural Center and Natural History Preserve
Tulalip, Washington – The Hibulb Cultural Center and Natural History Preserve is proud to present Matika Wilbur’s newest Project 562 collection: “Natural Wanderment: Stewardship – Sovereignty – Sacredness”, an exhibition of Native American portraits and stories that honors and seeks to protect ancestral ways of life and lands in North America. Project 562 offers a creative relationship with people from 562+ Tribal Nations in the United States that builds cultural bridges, abandons stereotypes, and renews and inspires our national legacy.
Matika Wilbur’s Project 562 is an inspiring artistic adventure unfolding the living history of North America’s ancient peoples. Over the last three years and 250,000 miles, Wilbur, one of the nation’s leading photographers, has journeyed tirelessly to hear the stories and imbibe the culture and wisdom of the original peoples of the land. From Alaska to the Southwest, Louisiana to upper Maine, to date she has acquired exquisite portraits and compelling narratives from over 300 tribes. The stunning and unprecedented work of Project 562 has been featured in national and international media, attracted scores of thousands of visitors to galleries and museums in the U.S. and around the world, been awarded leading creativity grants, and drawn invitations from leading universities and institutions. Wilbur’s artistic mission has caused such intense conversation and transformative awareness about the vibrant, multifaceted identity of Native Americans she is brilliantly exploring.
This human-focused artistic undertaking has revealed that at the core of many Native American’s identities and lives in the United States is their indispensable connection to their ancestral lands. Wilbur recently posted in her blog: “Repeatedly in our journey, we have seen that land and associated rights are essential to the exercise of tribal sovereignty and the ability to preserve and promote culture . . . Where there is displacement from a homeland, there has come to be irrepressible yearning and struggle on all fronts for cultural wholeness and identity, as well as for communication and action about such crises.” This has become the rule, not the exception, as Wilbur has encountered in every visit to tribal nations long-standing struggles by activists, seed-keepers, wild rice harvesters, elders, and other culture bearers to maintain and re-establish indigenous rights to natural places and resources. From the Oak Flat’s struggle to maintain access to their sacred prayer place, Miccusookee’s fight for the Everglades, Lummi’s opposition to the coal train, Paiutes in dire battles for water preservation and rights in California, Southwest tribes’ organized protests against fracking and sacred despoliation . . . the list goes on.
Opening on October 23, 2015 at the Hibulb Cultural Center of the Tulalip Tribes, Wilbur is presenting an extraordinary exhibition of Native Americans devoted to honoring and protecting the sacred and natural world, which is one in the same in their world view. Despite western ideologies and systems that undermine this living truth, there remain the “people of the blue green water”, the “people of the tall pine trees”, the “people of the tide.” Wilbur uses portrait art to express the “ecological being” of sitters, imbuing these images and narratives with the aspiration and force of the original stewards of the land, which is vital to not only the sovereignty and dignity of Native Americans, but also the preservation and majesty of the natural world. As she explains: “With Hibulb’ s generous support, I’m able to share these remarkable portraits and narratives before the end of this total project, as it is crucial that these diverse Native Americans’ values and purposes be known right now. And I’ve featured the land itself, places of breathtaking beauty and wonder that inspire me to keep going in this long and demanding journey I’m on. The show is inspired by the peoples I’ve encountered and how I felt (and wrote in my journal) watching a sunrise above the Bonneville Flats in Utah – ‘Never had the earth been so lovely, nor the sun so bright, as just now.’”
THE PHOTOGRAPHER Matika Wilbur has a little exercise she encourages new acquaintances to perform.
Do a Google image search for the term “Native American” and see what comes up.
The first result on a recent attempt is a grainy, sepia-toned picture of an unidentified Indian chief staring into the distance like a lost soul and decked out exactly (and unfortunately) as one might expect — in a headdress of tall fathers and a vest made of carved horn. It looks to be from early in the previous century. The next six pictures, variations on this theme. It’s as if the society depicted in these images ceased to exist decades ago.
Wilbur, a 30-year-old from Seattle who’s a member of the Tulalip and Swinomish tribes of Puget Sound, knows perhaps as much as anyone in America how laughably out-of-whack that Google-search result really is. She is halfway through an epic journey funded by everyday people via Kickstarter to visit and document every single federally recognized tribe in the United States — more than 500 in all.
For the past year and a half, she’s been taking new images to replace the tired ones that pop up in Internet searches, in the mainstream media — and in our minds.
She calls her three-year campaign Project 562, the “562” representing the number of recognized tribes when she started out; there were 566 as of this spring. The first 50 or so gallery-ready images from the project are on exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum until Oct. 5.
It is the most ambitious effort to visually document Native Americans since Edward Curtis undertook a similar challenge at the beginning of the last century. Back then, it was widely believed that Indians on this continent were going extinct and needed to be photographed for posterity.
Wilbur is also concerned about photographing Native Americans for posterity, but her project is more a story of survival and advancement than extinction.
Wilbur’s first name means “messenger” in her tribal language, and she more than lives up to that title. She pursues the issue of Native American identity with the zeal of an evangelist. And she doesn’t mince words.
“How can we be seen as modern, successful people if we are continually represented as the leathered and feathered vanishing race?” Wilbur says in a clip on Kickstarter.
In person, she makes an equally powerful impression, telling stories, laughing out loud and giving hugs, but also speaking earnestly about her work.
Taking a break from the field to attend the opening of the Tacoma exhibit this spring, she pointed out that images such as hers have an impact well beyond museums and classrooms.
“We have to take back our narratives,” she says. “It’s time we stop assuming an identity that was never really ours.”
Native Americans make up only 1.7 percent of the U.S. population, or about 5.2 million people, according to the 2010 Census.
As Native American tribes negotiate for things like federal recognition and access to natural resources, Wilbur says it helps to show that Indian society remains intact and functional, albeit diminished.
“Imagery matters,” she says. “Representation matters.”
PROJECT 562 officially launched in the fall of 2012, when Wilbur, a schoolteacher, decided to give up her apartment in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood along with “a salary, a really cozy bed and a juicer!” and hit the road.
She laid the groundwork by networking through Facebook, tribal newspapers, cultural leaders, professors and even distant relatives to get out the word and drum up contacts. She launched the first round of her Kickstarter campaign to fund her travels, raising $35,000.
Then Wilbur packed up her Honda with her belongings, as well as personally canned fish and berries from the Northwest to present as gifts to her hosts around the country, and headed out.
To date, she has visited more than 220 tribal lands from Long Island to Louisiana, Hawaii to Alaska, armed with little more than a camera and audio equipment, and a willingness to live out of her car and sleep in the homes of strangers.
Wilbur jokes that there are only two degrees of separation between people even in the most far-flung sections of Indian country. Still, it can take time to follow the necessary protocols with tribal leaders and identify portrait subjects, and days more to build rapport before the camera comes out.
In the field, Wilbur, a people person if ever there was one, sings and dances and cooks and feasts, gaining access to tribal events and behind-the-scenes moments that are off-limits to most outsiders.
“I can hang — I’ll do your dishes!” Wilbur says in typically animated fashion one day while “hanging” in her old stomping grounds on Capitol Hill.
Wherever she visits, locals make a way for her. “It’s like they take pity on me,” she jokes.
Wilbur, who maintains a small staff of volunteers based in different cities, seems to have struck a chord. A second Kickstarter campaign to raise $54,000 more to continue the project netted pledges totaling nearly four times that — $213,461.
The Tacoma Art Museum helped raise $20,000 to print silver gelatin images on display there.
Project 562 is only partly a photographic journey. It is also a social documentary, a contemporary oral account by people young and old, rancher, blue-collar and professional, of what it’s like to be an Indian in the United States.
At the Tacoma exhibit, recorded audio and video interviews accompany the portraits, adding nuance and resonance to the framed and in some cases hand-painted pictures. Subjects speak frankly about experiencing racism, their connection to the land, spirituality and personal identity. It is not always easy listening.
Wilbur’s teenage niece, Anna Cook, is the subject of one portrait. She talks about going to a Catholic school and struggling to find a place in the overwhelmingly non-Native student body. On the recording that accompanies her portrait, she sobs while talking about how the white, Hispanic and the few Native students self-segregate in her school’s lunch room — “but nobody really says anything about it. I just have one really solid friend that I sit with by myself, so we kinda like separate ourselves.”
That interview saddens Wilbur even now. But she believes that by having Cook expose her deepest anxieties about being Native American, she will inspire other young Native Americans to do likewise — and open a window for the rest of us.
“It’s scary to be honest,” Wilbur says. “But if we don’t do it, then we won’t change the experience for the next generation.”
Subjects in the exhibit express differing views about what it means to be an Indian. Star Flower Montoya, Barona and Taos Pueblo, shares advice from her grandmother: “You learn to wear your moccasin on one foot and your tennis shoe on the other.”
But Turtle Mountain Chippewa Jessica Metcalf, a Ph.D in Native American studies, expresses an alternate take in the clip that accompanies her portrait:
“We are not split in half. We do not have to choose . . . We do not leave our Indianness at the door when we walk into a grocery store or into an academic situation. We are who we are wherever we walk.”
WILBUR HAS tackled the issue of Indianness before.
In her earlier exhibit, “Save the Indian, Kill the Man,” Wilbur plays off the 19th-century U.S. government practice of sending Native American kids to boarding schools to assimilate them. The pictures explore how genocide and the loss of language and traditions contribute to problems such as substance abuse among Indians, which she believes is caused, in part, by a desire to numb the pain of historical and present-day ills.
Native Americans and Alaska Natives have among the highest rates of alcohol-related deaths and suicides of all ethnic groups in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Wilbur says it’s crucial to deal openly with the “sickness and toxicity” that plague Native American communities.
At the same time, it’s important to combat stereotypes perpetuated in, say, old “cowboy and Indian” movies, as well as depictions of drunken, downtrodden urban Indians, she says.
What’s striking about Wilbur’s pictures is the flattering way Wilbur has chosen to portray her subjects. The exoticism of the “noble savage” is replaced by an everyman sort of dignity. Majestic, natural backgrounds suggest a deep pride of place. The viewer can sense Wilbur’s determination to reset our attitudes about Native people.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times when young people discuss ‘What’s Indianness,’ it’s associated with poverty and struggle,” Wilbur says. “That struggle somehow defines who we are, and I think I made the same mistake as a young person. I associated it with alcoholism and drug addiction, and the negative things in our communities that we’re still trying to recover from.”
First, Wilbur had to wrestle her own ideas about what it means to be an Indian.
Wilbur’s mother, Nancy Wilbur, whom she describes admiringly as “an old-school hustler, a total entrepreneur,” was an Indian activist who ran a Native American art gallery, called Legends, in La Conner when she was a kid. There, across the Swinomish Channel from the reservation where she grew up, the young Wilbur had privileged encounters with influential artists such as Marvin Oliver and Douglas David, who’d stop in to show off their latest work.
Wilbur’s Swinomish family has a deep connection to the land around La Conner; a road near town even bears the Wilbur family name.
There was much that Wilbur could’ve been proud of in those years — but she was angry.
At college in Montana and then Southern California, where she earned a bachelor’s degree from the Brooks Institute of Photography, she became tired of fielding ill-considered questions about her identity. Explaining to people unfamiliar with Northwest Coastal culture that “No, I didn’t grow up in a teepee” can wear you down.
Even though she knew the stereotypes about contemporary Indian life were wrong, Wilbur was “too young and naive” to figure out what actually did represent her culture, or why certain ills within her community persisted.
“I didn’t understand why my people were sick; I didn’t understand why I had been to 70 funerals,” she says.
It took some time to connect the dots.
After college, Wilbur traveled abroad in search of herself, spending time in Europe, Africa and South America, where she photographed indigenous communities in Peru.
Wilbur came home inspired. Instead of thinking of her heritage as a burden, she’d work to showcase it. She would be “my grandmother’s granddaughter,” passing on the positive traditions and beliefs handed down to her while documenting efforts to improve life for present-day Native Americans, from programs to revive fading tribal languages to ones aimed at improving health-care outcomes on reservations.
Her portraits don’t avoid colorful Indian attire and ceremonies — far from it. From White Mountain Apache crown dancers in full body paint and headdresses to traditional hoop dancers, the collection celebrates custom and ritual. But presented among pictures of academics, activists, students, family men, career women and cowboys who are Indians, these images have a more appropriate context.
When the exhibit opened in Tacoma this spring, Wilbur invited local relatives, project volunteers and subjects from around the country to the opening party to present blessings of song, dance and storytelling. What could’ve been a stodgy reception turned into a moving and at times rousing affair, with a stunning cross-section of Native American society on hand — Puyallup, Tulalip, Swinomish, Paiute, Pima, Crow, Yuma, Apache and beyond.
Thosh Collins, a portrait subject from the Pima of Arizona, remarked on the uplifting spiritual energy in the room.
“What she’s doing is healing work, wellness work,” he said of Wilbur’s pictures.
At times like this, it’s hard to ignore the sad fact that this country’s Native people have few opportunities to celebrate across tribal affiliation in a mainstream space like an urban art museum. And it is even rarer for non-Natives to bear witness to such a gathering.
Rock Huska, the museum’s curator for Northwest Contemporary Art, admits that TAM has limited experience with Native American art from the present day. And it is taking a huge gamble in helping an artist in the field to bring her project to fruition. The exhibit on display now is, in a sense, a test case for this type of collaboration. The museum will use feedback from paying visitors to make needed refinements and decide later how to work with Wilbur as she gathers additional material.
Wilbur is engaged in two kinds of image-making — and only one involves a camera.
She talks a lot about making Native Americans “attractive.”
But when Wilbur uses that term, she isn’t just talking about physical beauty. She’s also talking about doing things that inspire others to make positive change in their own way — leading by example.
As Collins sang a song with his dad and brother at the opening reception, Wilbur, wearing a traditional woven hat, led a large, smiling group of women and men locked arm-in-arm in a joyful circle dance around the museum’s atrium.
Wilbur says her goal is to build a traveling longhouse that represents her Northwest Coastal Indian roots and can be set up in cities all over the world to showcase her portrait collection, reminding visitors that the communities represented in her images aren’t just a part of history — they’re still making it.
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW magazine writer. Reach him at tbeason@seattletimes. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Read more here: http://www.thenewstribune.com/2014/05/16/3197717/re-visioning-native-america.html?sp=/99/1683/#storylink=cpy
When Northwest artist Matika Wilbur was at an airport with her 9-year-old nephew, they happened upon a display case of Swinomish tribal art — their own people. Except the label explained, “The Swinomish were a hunter-gatherer tribe who lived in the Puget Sound region …”
Wilbur’s nephew turned to her, and asked sadly, “Aunty, why does it say ‘we were,’ not ‘we are?’ ”
The answer to that question opens at the Tacoma Art Museum on Saturday. Wilbur, a Swinomish/Tulalip photographer, is unveiling the first part of her “Project 562,” a multiyear, multimedia odyssey to document every recognized Native American tribe in the United States — to show, in fact, the “we are.”
Supported by the museum from the beginning, the project’s nearly halfway done, with 200 out of (now) 566 tribes documented in startling silver gelatin portraits, audio interviews and short films. Around 40 of the portraits will be on view at Saturday’s opening, along with Wilbur herself to give a talk on her journey to turn around the imagery of contemporary Native America.
“When you Google ‘African American’ you get beautiful images of people doing what we do now — kids on swings, businesspeople in suits,” says Wilbur. “If you Google ‘Latino’ or ‘Asian American’, the same. But for Native American, what you’ll find is images of previous centuries.”
That kind of negative, stereotypical imagery, Wilbur adds, affects self-esteem, worsening problems in many tribes of alcohol addiction, drug use and teen suicide.
“As a teacher, I lost a lot of students to suicide,” she says. “I argue that image does affect our consciousness, our children. It’s been proven in studies.”
Four years ago, Wilbur decided to change that imagery.
“I’m hopeful, I believe things can change,” she says. “I thought, what if things could change for young people? What if I could be a part of that? That was my dream, my goal.”
Planning, applying for grants, doing a Kickstarter campaign, contacting tribes and finally driving around the country, she has covered 60,000 miles since November 2012, spending around five days in each place, taking audio and photographic portraits of at least three men and three women in each tribe, thus the name “Project 562.” Along the way she’s raised national media awareness through NBC, NPR, BBC, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, even Buzzfeed.com.
“What I’m attempting to do is to offer a contemporary image that showcases our heroes,” says Wilbur.
And much of the credit goes to the Tacoma Art Museum. With a budget of $500,000 to pay for travel and costs for a book, films and educational curriculum, Wilbur “desperately needed a big institution to put their name on the project.” Most of the institutions she approached either doubted or laughed at the project — except Tacoma.
“(Senior curator) Rock Hushka was like, ‘Let’s do it. I’ll help you. What do you need?’” Wilbur says. “That’s not what museums normally do. They usually borrow your work when it’s finished.”
Wilbur also points out the museum got on board long before they accepted the enormous Haub collection of Western art, much of which comes from that previous-century perspective on native identity.
And so, this weekend, TAM gets to host the inaugural “Project 562” exhibition through October, before it travels to other venues. (The Haub wing opens shortly afterward.)
“‘Project 562’ provides ample evidence of the diversity and vibrancy of contemporary Native Americans,” says Hushka. “Only a photographer of Wilbur’s caliber could capture this with such grace and clarity.”
The exhibition will be accompanied by various lectures, as well as being the centerpiece for the museum’s annual Native Northwest Community Celebration on May 31. A member reception Saturday night will include hoop dancers from Phoenix; singers from the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes; a blessing from the Puyallup tribe and more.
Wilbur also is collaborating with fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail (Crow Nation) on a “562” fashion line, which the artist hopes will fund the project into the future. The first items are scarves that double as shawls, with design elements (cedar, cracked earth) that tell stories from different tribes.
What speaks loudest in “Project 562,” however, are Wilbur’s portraits. Shot against desert landscapes, calm Puget Sound waters, city streets or plain walls, they show tough teens, patient elders, cowboys, young women in denim, older women in regalia. And while the background is important — places her subjects felt most tied to — it’s reduced to black-and-white, while the people themselves stand out in color.
Spending up to three hours, Wilbur also interviewed her subjects extensively, diving into their deepest dreams and loyalties.
“I asked them where they grew up, why they stayed or left, about their family and what’s not in the history books about their people,” she says. “Then I talked about more serious things — what does it mean to be a sovereign nation? About assimilation, education, values, wellness, racial stereotypes … and what does it mean to be a member of your community? … That question is important for me, because it grapples with the concept of being ‘Indian enough.’”
While Wilbur’s work asks big questions and has been described as provocative, Wilbur says what matters most is how it attempts to connect actual living Native American cultures with the rest of Western society, reversing the “historical inaccuracies about Indian identity.” It also creates a central location where those cultures have visual representation.
“It’s more about the intimacy of the portraits and the stories they convey,” she says. “It’s also time we allowed our young Native people to see themselves in a positive light. To move beyond poverty porn and give them something hopeful.”
Read more here: http://www.thenewstribune.com/2014/05/16/3197717/re-visioning-native-america.html?sp=/99/1683/#storylink=cpy
Kickstarter Finale Celebration
Sunday, February 16, 2 pm
Tacoma Art Museum
Source: Tacoma Art Museum
Matika Wilbur, Seattle artist and member of the Swinomish and Tulalip Tribes, has taken on the prodigious task of photographing every federally-recognized tribe in the United States and to unveil the true essence of contemporary Native issues. The artistic and spiritual journey called Project 562 has already taken Wilbur on a 1,000-mile adventure across the country.
Join us for an unique opportunity to meet Matika Wilbur as she wraps up the final days of Project 562‘s Kickstarter campaign. Hear stories from the road, learn where she’s headed next, and support this historic undertaking.
Learn more and support the journey on Project 562’s Kickstarter page.
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, 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 matikawilbu.com. 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.
For information about Project 562 and to donate visit her kiskstarter.com page or Matikawilbur.com. 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.