Matika Wilbur is on a mission that will take her across the United States. Weary of stereotypical representations of Native Americans, the high school teacher is determined to photograph every federally-recognized Native American tribe in the country.
“When you see us represented in mass media, you see Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves and Twilight, or maybe on some Netflix series you’ll see an Indian who’s fighting with Congress to have a casino,” Wilbur said. “What you won’t see is doctors and lawyers and contemporary people living in the present.”
Wilbur, a Native American woman of the Swinomish and Tulalip Tribes, is out to change that. She hopes her pictures will present a well-rounded portrait of today’s Native Americans: People fighting hard to maintain tribal sovereignty and protect ancestral ways, who also have children and family problems and chaos and order and love, like any other people.
Wilbur has been on the road for more than three years now on a journey that has covered more than 250,000 miles so far.
It’s worthwhile trek, she says, to uplift young Native Americans who are inundated with stories about themselves that revolve around poverty, alcoholism, stereotypical representations, lower life expectancy and a myriad of other social problems.
“I think it’s the result of brutal colonization and the years of genocide, all of the racist federal policies: termination, relocation, assimilation,” said Wilbur. “These policies that have aimed to erase our people have left a lasting impression and we’re in the throes of attempting to recover from the sum of those experiences.”
Wilbur’s venture is called Project 562, after the 562 federally-recognized tribes she plans to photograph, including some on reservations in remote areas of the country. She ultimately plans to exhibit the photos, publish them and see her images used in education curricula.
She hopes her photos will help reshape the public’s perception of who Native Americans are.
“There’s something in this collective consciousness that still believes that Indians are lesser human beings, savage, that we’re conquered,” Wilbur said. “It’s like someone is throwing stones at you and it lands somewhere. It lands somewhere on your spirit, and your heart and how you feel about yourself.”
Wilbur’s goal is for her photos to help reshape how young people, like her former high school students, feel about themselves.
Native American youth have the highest suicide levels in the country and Wilbur saw first-hand how false and outdated impressions of Native Americans negatively impacted them and how they felt about themselves.
Ultimately, she hopes her photographs of a diverse people will be not only informative, but also uplifting.
“Hopefully we create something beautiful and positive, something that shows stories of hope and endurance,” she said. “It’s not the dying race, it’s not a manifestation of a romanticized version [of a people].”