Every time she visits a tribe for the first time, photographer Matika Wilbur leaves her camera in the bag and leads with her ears. “And that’s heavy,” she says. “I know, because I grew up on the rez.” From elders, youths, culture bearers and mainstream professionals, she hears about struggles for sovereignty, domestic abuse and addiction, POW camps and genocide, as well as stories of spiritual courage and success. Only after she has gathered these tales is the soulful and exuberant 28-year-old Tulalip Tribes member ready to take what she calls “character-study portraits.”
And then she visits another tribe and repeats the entire process—something she aims to do as many as 1,000 times before she’s finished.
A former resident of the Swinomish Reservation adjacent to La Conner, Washington, Wilbur embarked on her project in 2011. So far, she’s photographed members of nearly 100 tribes, mostly on the West Coast, and when she finishes in 2015, she will have photographed hundreds more across the country. Project 562 is named for the number of federally recognized tribes as of her start date. Wilbur—who is funding her project through grants, sponsorship from the Pechanga tribe, Kickstarter funds and personal savings—says there are hundreds more unrecognized tribes, such as the Seattle-area Duwamish, and she plans to include as many as possible in her project.
Wilbur hopes her photos capture Native American identity today and break the romanticized notion of Native Americans as “vanishing races.” “I hate that stereotype,” she says. “Culture is intact; across the country, native peoples are singing songs, weaving baskets, telling stories.” Her juxtapositions of American Indians in traditional dress against urban settings and in contemporary dress against natural settings speak to the complex layers of their lives.
Wilbur, who shoots on film and considers herself an artist rather than a political activist, is quick to point out that the issues her photos raise—about cultural identity and assimilation—are persistent and complex. She hopes these portraits serve to reveal the variety of Native American narratives, which, as she says, are “profound and deep and untold.”
Above: Dr. Mary (Evelyn) Jiron Belgarde of the Pueblo of Isleta and the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, shown here in a manta (a traditional pueblo dress), with a beaded pouch that holds sacred objects. She stands in a prayer pose, looking above to the creator and sacred people (relatives and friends who have gone to the spirit world) on the Sandia Pueblo near Albuquerque, New Mexico. Belgarde, whose Indian name is Kah-cuu-povi (which means yellow corn pollen flower), is a retired professor of American Indian education at the University of New Mexico. She researches Native Americans’ forced assimilation through federal education policies since 1900, and works passionately to change these policies and improve teacher training in Native schools. Photographed March 2013.