Through a lens, documenting indigenous culture

In 2012, photographer Matika Wilbur, 38, packed her cameras, sold everything and bought an RV she named “Big Girl.” Wilbur, who is Swinomish and Tulalip, peoples of coastal Washington, spent the next 10 years on the road exploring contemporary Indigenous identity through portraits and oral histories — a series that would collectively come to be called “Project 562.” (The title refers to the number of federally recognized tribes at the start of her journey. Current total: 574, though that number changes regularly.)

Shane MitchellThe New York Times
Published : 19 May 2022, 10:34 AM
Updated : 19 May 2022, 04:31 PM

To date, she has travelled more than 600,000 road miles and visited more than 400 tribal nations, from the Unangax on the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to the Miccosukee in Florida’s Everglades.

Each sitting with Wilbur is intentionally collaborative, with the goal of showing subjects’ humanity and allowing them to express themselves in their own language; she considers this narrative correction work after centuries of misrepresentation and cultural erasure.

“Our Indigenous TikTok stars will often put on regalia and dance, and it gathers a lot of likes,” she said. “But what about a Native doctor in a suit? Because seeing is believing, and our young children deserve to see themselves as they are.”

Her images are varied and representative of contemporary Indigenous identity: A young Colville guitarist performing a White Stripes tune in Okanagan Salish. A Tolowa Dee-ni’ woman proudly wearing her dv-ghvtlh-t’e’sr, a traditional facial tattoo also known as the 111 mark. A founder of the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits Pow Wow, which celebrates gender and sexual diversity. The first Apache girl to win the Teen Inland Empire Princess pageant. Canoe families paddling the Salish Sea. Kanaka Maoli protesters of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the slopes of Mauna Kea volcano, which they consider sacred.

Project 562 is the fourth, and most ambitious, of Wilbur’s creative projects addressing core Native American values and experiences — among them food sovereignty, rematriation (a term that can refer to seed sharing, knowledge sharing or reclaiming the feminine identity), kinship ties and mutualism. (A Project 562 book will be published next year by Ten Speed Press, and an exhibition organized by the nonprofit Photoville is scheduled for June 4-26 in Times Square.) But most importantly, by her own account, Wilbur’s personal experience has also deepened from sitting with elders like John Trudell, an activist who died in 2015, who, she said, suggested she convey “what it means to become human from an Indigenous perspective.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: Why is collaboration with your subjects key to your portraits?

A: My spirit name, Tsa-Tsique, means Woman Who Teaches, so it’s my responsibility to be a messenger, and a good relative, while I’m trying to tell these stories. Each of the people that I photographed chose what to wear, where to be photographed, and which questions they wanted to answer. They share in the mission to change the way we see Native America.

Because of that common goal, I think it put me in a lot of situations, photographically, where they chose a location because it was maybe emotionally significant to them. When I was photographing tribes in Utah, outside Zion National Park, I really wanted people to be in front of those big red rock formations under that blue sky, and they were like, no, it’s OK. Just take my picture here on my front porch.

Q: Has the project changed over time?

A: In the beginning, the work was very much about overcoming stereotypes of the leathered and feathered Indian. How do we help people to realise that Native America is complex, that everywhere we are is Native land, that there is a Native identity that is always around you, if you choose to listen and engage? It was certainly about that.

Then, as time went on, I became interested in other things beyond narrative correction work. I think I was aiming to get to know cultures and identities that I had hoped for as a child. When I was a young person, my mom owned a Native American art gallery, and we had songs from Haudenosaunee singer Joanne Shenandoah. I played her album on repeat. And I would try to imagine like what it would be like to be in one of their long houses. So that was a big moment when I got to visit with her.

Q: What helped you address the most challenging Indigenous narratives?

A: Khenorónhkwa, the great big love, which was introduced to me by Tommy Sakokwenionkwas Porter. He’s a respected Akwesasne elder and a great speaker. He wouldn’t let me take his photograph. But I was telling him about all of the things that I had found along the way, because at this point, I’d already been on the road for three or four years. So many stories of pain and trauma. Stories of boarding school and rape, and mismanagement of land and resources. Stories about colonization and the damage that it’s done. My spirit had really taken a hit. I remember feeling a little helpless, like, I don’t know if I can keep listening to these stories.

And he then told me about khenorónhkwa — that’s why we go to the long house, why we have ceremony, because we need to see our people in their loving and kind and tender moments, right? We need to be able to see the love that happens between generations. So we can remember why we’re living.

Q: What does it mean to be Swinomish?

A: We’re the people of the tide, the salmon people. Our biggest ceremony every year is to put the salmon back upstream and to give thanks. We consider ourselves their relatives. We call them people in our language. So we revere our relationship with the tides, with the moon, with the salmon. It gives me a framework for how I interact with the world.

Q: What has been a particularly powerful moment for you?

A: Marva Sii-xuutesna Jones, an ancestral worldview activist, talked about her 111 tattoo: “I’m wearing my identity when I put these markers of my womanhood and my culture on my face.” It was really profound for me to meet a woman like that. It’s a powerful move to not uphold whiteness as the indicator of beauty but to celebrate the way we are meant to look. And it’s inspiring for me as an Indigenous woman to think about what it means to embrace my Indigeneity, to wear it on myself.

Q: What’s it like to be the only Native in the room?

A: I get invited into all of these elite spaces to represent as a Native person. But what if there could be true collaboration? What if every person that worked on my projects at every turn was a Native scholar, holding power and making decisions? That’s what I’m hoping — to get to a place where the work can advance. But if we’re always having to explain ourselves at every turn, then the time that we have gets eaten up by Native 101. And I don’t want to keep doing the 101.

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