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How does Matika Wilbur challenge stereotypes about Native Americans?

How does Matika Wilbur challenge false ideas about Native Americans?

Matika Wilbur (b. 1984), Coast Salish Canoe Journey, 2018. Silver gelatin fiber and hand-colored with oil paints. Photograph by Matika Wilbur. Used by permission of the artist. All rights reserved.

How does Wilbur use her composition to place viewers in the action?

Matika Wilbur, Self-Portrait. Silver gelatin fiber and hand-colored with oil paints. Photograph by Matika Wilbur. Used by permission of the artist. All rights reserved.

Nearly 10 years ago, artist Matika Wilbur sold everything in her Seattle apartment and hit the road in an RV she calls Big Girl. She was on a mission to photograph members of the 500-plus sovereign, or self-governing, Native American nations in the United States. Through Project 562—named after the number of federally recognized Native nations when she started—Wilbur hopes to change the way many people see Native Americans, challenging what she calls the “feathered and leathered” stereotypes in popular culture.

Nearly 10 years ago, artist Matika Wilbur sold many of her belongings. She left her apartment in Seattle and hit the road in an RV she calls Big Girl. She had a plan to photograph people of every sovereign (self-governing) Native American nation in the United States. When she started, there were 562 federally recognized Native nations. She called her idea Project 562. One of Wilbur’s goals is to change the way many people see Native Americans. She challenges popular, incorrect ideas about Native people.

Matika Wilbur, Darkfeather Ancheta, Eckos Chartraw-Ancheta, and Bibiana Ancheta, Tulalip, Washington, 2016. Silver gelatin fiber and hand-colored with oil paints. Photograph by Matika Wilbur. Used by permission of the artist. All rights reserved.

Why is the subjects’ clothing important to the story?

The Journey Begins

For Wilbur, who is of the Swinomish (SWIN-uh-mish) and Tulalip (tuh-LAY-lup) peoples in coastal Washington State, the project started with a dream. After earning a bachelor of fine arts in photography, she worked as a commercial photographer in Los Angeles and then traveled through South America documenting people from Indigenous Nations. One night, while she was in Peru, she says her grandmother appeared to her in a dream, urging her to “help your people. Be who you were born to be.”

Wilbur, now 37, took this vision as a sign to return home to Washington. She began teaching high school and college photography. She was struck by the one-dimensional stereotypes of Native Americans that appear in textbooks and the mainstream media. 

Soon the idea for Project 562 was born. Wilbur decided to create a collection of photographs and interviews that accurately depict contemporary Native Americans. “We walk in two worlds as young, Native people,” she explains. “We learn to navigate with a moccasin on one foot and a tennis shoe on the other.” 

Wilbur is one of the Swinomish (SWIN-uh-mish) and Tulalip (tuh-LAY-lup) peoples in coastal Washington state. She studied photography in college, then worked as a commercial photographer in Los Angeles. Later, she traveled around South America to document Indigenous Nations there. One night in Peru, she had a dream that her grandmother encouraged her to “help your people. Be who you were born to be.”

Wilbur took the dream as a sign to return home to Washington. She began teaching photography to high school and college students. She was bothered by the incorrect representations of Native Americans in textbooks and the media. Soon her idea for Project 562 was born. Wilbur decided to create a collection of photos and interviews of real contemporary Native Americans. “We walk in two worlds as young, Native people,” says Wilbur, who is now 37. “We learn to navigate with a moccasin on one foot and a tennis shoe on the other.”

Real People, True Stories

Wilbur photographs her subjects, who all volunteer to model, on Indigenous land. They wear accessories and clothing that are important to their identity. Wilbur also interviews her subjects, asking about their lives and traditions.

Wilbur’s 2018 Coast Salish Canoe Journey, top image, shows people in two canoes. Wilbur places the viewer in the action between the vessels. Her composition emphasizes the designs painted on the right canoe as it glides diagonally through the space. 

The portrait above features Darkfeather Ancheta, her nephew Eckos Chartraw-Ancheta, and her sister Bibiana Ancheta at Washington’s Tulalip Bay. Wilbur says, 

“I imagined these women as protectors of the bay and protectors of our children. I wanted to make an image that represented the way I feel about this place.” The women place their hands on the child’s chest as he faces the viewer. How does Wilbur show the passing of traditions from one generation to the next through her subjects’ poses?

Wilbur’s subjects all volunteer to model in her photos. She photographs them on Indigenous land. They wear accessories and clothing that are important to their identities. Wilbur also interviews her subjects about their lives and traditions.

Her 2018 Coast Salish Canoe Journey, top image, shows people in two canoes. Viewers might feel like they are in the action between the boats. She draws attention to the traditional designs painted on the right canoe. It appears to glide diagonally through the space.

Wilbur made the portrait above at Tulalip Bay in Washington. It features a woman named Darkfeather Ancheta, her nephew Eckos Chartraw-Ancheta, and her sister Bibiana Ancheta. “I imagined these women as protectors of the bay and protectors of our children,” Wilbur says. “I wanted to make an image that represented the way I feel about this place.” The women’s hands are on the child’s chest. He faces the viewer. Their poses suggest the passing of traditions from one generation to the next.

The Road Ahead

Since 2012, Wilbur has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles by car, train, plane, boat, and even on horseback. As she approaches the 10-year anniversary of the project, Wilbur is compiling her work into a book that will highlight the richness and diversity of Native peoples across the U.S. “Since I started this project, Instagram developed. Native TikTok developed. There’s much more visibility of Native people now than there was 10 years ago,” she says. “I see my work as part of this great contingency of Native creators that are working to overcome erasure.” 

Since 2012, Wilbur has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles. She’s traveled by car, train, plane, boat, and even on horseback! She’s been working on Project 562 for nearly 10 years. Wilbur is organizing her work for a book that will show the diversity of Native peoples across the U.S. The artist says that since she started the project, Native people have become more visible through social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. She sees her work as part of the movement of Native creators who are “working to overcome erasure.”

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