Life is sometimes more like a pointillist painting than a photograph — taking a few steps back sharpens our focus. For photographer and activist Matika Wilbur, a Swinomish and Tulalip Indian from the Pacific Northwest, it took traveling to South America as a journalistic photographer to see more clearly that her dharma was back home. When she returned to Washington State in 2008, Wilbur reconnected with the local communities through her art and pedagogical efforts.
Between 2008-2012, Wilbur kept her camera trained on fashion and commercial projects, as evidenced by her impressive resume, which boasts many collective and solo exhibits, as well as photo projects for top companies like Nordstrom and PBS. She also owned and operated a gallery in Seattle and somehow also found time to become a certified teacher. Together with a B.F.A. in photography from the prestigious Brooks Institute, this last piece qualified Wilbur to teach basics and black-and-white classes at the Tulalip school and Antioch College. These seemingly disparate pieces began to come together when Wilbur realized the lack of representation of Native Americans both before and behind the camera.
Perhaps the only precursor to Wilbur’s preoccupation with photographing Native Americans is Edward Curtis, but just like in anthropology and art, the framing changes the story. While Curtis is a non-Indian, an outsider, his alienation clear in his approach, Wilbur grew up with her tribe, she knows the life, the stereotypes, she has lived the discrimination herself. As an elementary school teacher, she sought to provide basic visibility to America’s First People, and within the curricula she had been handed she found so little. The stories, images, history, and current situation of Native Americans was all but absent from the books. When Native people were represented, it was by way of caricatures. She set out to change that.
In 2012, Wilbur realized that she could do something to gain inclusion of the 562 Federally recognized sovereign Indian nations in the mainstream, the history books, the media. Today, 573 distinct nations have been counted. Starting with what she knew best, Wilbur quit her day jobs, sold her earthly possessions, and hopped on an RV she has nicknamed “Big Girl” to reach remote and breathtaking landscapes, inhabited by our nation’s First Peoples, and photograph them, capturing some of the images we have been missing.
Wilbur’s ongoing, national Project 562 was partly funded by a Kickstarter campaign, partly by restraint and resourcefulness, as well as honoraria from scheduled talks and motivational speeches. Wilbur continues to be deeply committed to reopening conversations about how tribes are faring in the present day and how to recover from the trauma of history. This is the activist part of her work, whether she intended it or not. Wilbur’s connection to the tribes that have welcomed her and the deeply personal stories she has stumbled into eliciting, touch on the dark problems in Native communities (addiction, abuse, suicide) and are reminiscent of Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York, journalism of empathy.
Beautiful, profoundly moving, and as traditional and spiritual as they are contemporary, Wilbur’s photographs span 40 states, tens of thousands of miles, and hundreds of tribes. Not done yet, Wilbur continues to ride and crash on people’s couches in search of the beautiful real, the hard and spiritual life of America’s Indians, finally getting them seen.