Matika Wilbur has logged 100,000 miles on her Honda Accord as she’s crisscrossed the country in an attempt to photograph all 566 federally-recognized Indian tribes. She’s been photographing for the past 17 months. She’s close to reaching her 200th tribe.
And when she’s asked about what she’s learned, what she didn’t anticipate encountering out on the road or what’s surprised her, she replies: “So much humanity.”
“I’ve been really welcomed and showered with such generosity,” Wilbur says in a telephone interview from California. She was on a short break from travelling and shooting to finish hand painting some of her gelatin prints.
“People have fed me. They’ve had parties for me. They’ve let me sleep on their floors. The Shinnecock (on Long Island, N.Y) had a traditional clam bake."
“When I watch the news, it’s easy to forget about the humanity in each other. That’s what I’ve really discovered. That we have so much in common, whether we’re from different tribes, different races. We have this human desire to make things better. To create something that’s better for our children.”
Which is what continues to drive the 30-year-old Wilbur, who gave up her Capitol Hill apartment, her favorite sofa, “my juicer!” — she laughs — so she could hit the road and create a remarkable photographic narrative of Indian tribes.
She wants to create a paradigm shift in how we regard Native Americans. Or, simply, just plain ignore them. And instead of just a few faces representing an enormously diverse population, she wants to call attention to all the doers out there: “People who are working so hard to restore our language programs, who are working to protect natural resources, our water rights, our fishing rights, our hunting rights.”
Wilbur is Swinomish and Tulalip. She grew up in La Conner. She’s received a lot of media attention — and public support — for what she’s trying to accomplish. A 2012 Kickstarter campaign for the project exceeded its $30,000 goal. And that kind of freaked Wilbur out.
“Oh shit! That meant I was doing this! It was time to go.”
And she went, realizing a lot of what she had already done — learning how to be humble and fundraise, getting sober more than a decade earlier, teaching tribal youth and completing four earlier photographic projects about Indian country — had prepared her well.
“It requires a lot to be able to do something like this. I’m not just taking pictures. I’m staying in people’s homes. I’m praying with people. I’m doing my best to be the person that my grandmother would like me to be. To be a role model for my nieces and nephews."
“I come from a potlatch people and our purpose is to give back. We are told over and over that when you grow up, You’re going to get a good education and come back and help your people. You’re community first, then family, then yourself.”
Turns out her people extend beyond Puget Sound, so she’s hoping to right historical wrongs, demolish stereotypes and give actual voice to U.S. Indians (her photographic project includes oral histories).
“My goal is someone can hear the Diné language and see what a Pima person looks like. To get a glimpse that inspires you to want to learn more.”
A second Kickstarter campaign launched earlier this year raised 4 times her $54,000 goal. She’s got a team of volunteers backing her. She’s always looking for more. And if you’ve got a suggestion on a rad person, a positive mover and shaker who Wilbur should meet out in Indian Country, she wants to know.
“I am not alone in this journey. My success has been because of others’ kindness.”
The inaugural exhibit of her work-in-progress project opens next week at the Tacoma Art Museum. A multi-volume fine arts portrait series will be published by the University of Washington Press. Wilbur hopes to complete her project within the next 3 years.
Crosscut's arts coverage is made possible through the generous support of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.