Contemporary media rarely paints an authentic picture of Native American culture. Consider the racist namesake and logo of the Washington Redskins, the romanticized vision of feathered, leathered tribes in Disney’s Pocahontas, or, most recently, Johnny Depp’s portrayal of “Tonto” (which means “stupid”) in The Lone Ranger.
One year ago, Seattle-based photographer Matika Wilbur, from the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes in the Pacific Northwest, set out to change these distorted perceptions of Native America with Project562. Her goal is to interview and photograph citizens of all 566 federally recognized tribes in the United States. “Project562 is about bringing forward authentic stories from within Indian country in a positive way that can create a cultural exchange, so that we can move past some of those historical inaccuracies,” Wilbur tells Co.Design.
Recently, Wilbur launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the completion of Project 562. For a year now, Wilbur has been on the road, living out of her Honda, which she calls her “war pony.” She’s slept on couches and dined with the members of the 170 tribes she’s photographed so far. “I have been welcomed over and over again with kindness and generosity and incredible hospitality in ways that have really just brought me to tears,” Wilbur says.
She’s hoping to raise a total of $54,000 to pay for film (she doesn’t shoot digital) and living expenses so that she can stay on the road. Her work will culminate in a multi-volume fine art portrait series, which the University of Washington Press has offered to publish. The Tacoma Art Museum in Washington is also planning several exhibitions of her photographs, the first of which is slated for May of this year. She also plans on creating online databases of stories and portraits from Apaches, Swinomish, Hualapai, Northern Cheyenne, Tlingit, Pomo, Lumbee, and other Native Americans, who currently make up 1.6% of the U.S. population.
“The Western belief system is that you should always acquire more,” Wilbur says. “You become successful when you get a bigger house, a better car. But traditional Indian cultures say that when you become successful, you give everything you have away.”
On top of a painful and violent history, the clash of cultural values contributes to the continuing misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Native America. Too often, outsiders who visit reservations see what they think of as poverty and can only focus on how little “stuff” the residents have. “They miss the richness of culture,” Wilbur says. “They see the kid without shoes, a broken down car, and that’s what they write about. They don’t see the beauty.” Wilbur’s photographs capture that beauty in spades, revealing the spiritual richness that can come with avoiding materialism.
Wilbur also collaborated with Bethany Yellowtail, a fashion designer from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Tribe, to transform her photography into textile prints, which were made into a limited edition collection of clothing. The pieces will serve as prizes for Kickstarter donors.