Articles

Documenting Indigenous Americans

by Alicia Eler on March 26, 2014

Duncan Dancers of the Tunica-Biloxi tribe in Louisiana

Duncan Dancers of the Tulalip tribe (all photographs by Matika Wilbur unless otherwise noted)

LOS ANGELES — Between the years 1907 and 1930, Edward Sheriff Curtis published The North American Indian, a record of traditional Indian cultures in the United States and Canada. Curtis’ book, a landmark historical document with a foreword by Theodore Roosevelt, has been digitized and his photographs are available online to all those who seek them.

An Isleta girl via Curtis Libraries

A young Isleta woman as photographed by Edward Sheriff Curtis (via Curtis Libraries)

But isn’t it time for an update? Today, photographer Matika Wilbur is documenting all 562 federally recognized tribes of America from the perspective of someone who is a Native herself — not an old white dude. When I got in touch with her by phone, she was just pulling into Tunica-Biloxi in Louisiana, where she was shooting for a few days. Just the other week, she was in Arizona; next month, she’ll be in New Mexico.

Wilbur’s family’s land is in Washington state, on the Swinomish Reservation one hour outside of Seattle. After working and traveling for many years, including a stint in countries across South America and then to Spain, Wilbur realized that she had not been home for a while. Upon her return, Wilbur, a member of the Swinomish and Tulalip Tribes, began photographing the elders of her community. From there the project evolved as most do — through conversation with friends. They talked about how no one has photographed all the tribes in America for nearly 100 years.

Darkfeather and Bibiana Ancheta of the TK

Darkfeather, Bibiana and Eckos Ancheta of the Tulalip tribe

“I kept thinking somebody would do it,” Wilbur told Hyperallergic. When her friends pointed out that she was the one who did all the traveling and photography, she realized that this person was her.

On the blog Native Appropriations, a “forum for discussing representations of Native peoples, including stereotypes, cultural appropriation, news, activism, and more,” author Adrienne K. writes about the “stoicism” with which Curtis portrayed his Native subjects, and the sort of staging he asked of them:

“It came to light later that he [Curtis] was a fan of doctoring images (erasing signs of ‘modernity’), providing costumes for his subjects, and trying to make Native peoples fit his notion of Indianess.”

In Wilbur’s project, the people she works with are photographed in a very different manner.

“I photograph people within their indigenous territory,” she tells Hyperallergic, adding a caveat. “Because a lot of us have been pushed into reservation lands that doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the only place we consider our indigenous territory.”

Preston, an elder from the Ocotillo Tribe

Preston Arroweed, Quechan/Kumni tribal member

Some subjects are smiling while swimming around, like Caleb and Jared Dunlap of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, while others like Sage Romero of the tribe Big Pine Paiute wear traditional garb and pose in front of what looks like never-ending land.

After each of the photos is printed, Wilbur adds oil paint to certain sections by hand, which gives each one a sort of old-fashioned early photograph quality. Wilbur funded this project in part through Kickstarter; her original goal was set at $54,000. She ended up raising approximately four times that original amount, arriving at a total of $213,461. This was actually the second Kickstarter project, she told me; the entire Project 562 began about four years ago, and will continue for probably at least three more.

Vernon, an elder from the Ocotillo Tribe

Vernon Smith, Quechan tribal member

“If I stay on schedule, I am visiting three tribes per week,” she says. “The last groups in Alaska will be a bit complicated because you can only get to them by plane.”

Right now, she’s driving across America to document these tribes and tell a bigger story.

“Most of Western culture has no real sense of contemporary Indian culture or that it even exists,” says Wilbur. “For me, then my work became about education.”

This spring, Wilbur will present a solo exhibition of these photographs at the Tacoma Art Museum in Tacoma in Washington called Photographic Proof of Contemporary Indians: Matika Wilbur’s Project 562.

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  • Linda Eichorst

    This is a wonderful project. I can hardly wait to see the results. Where can I keep up to date with this project? It is so very important.

    My ancestors came to America in 1540, and I would love to see more than just a family tree of names.

    Wilbur, savor each moment and know that your work is very important.

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