You’ve Never Seen Native America Like This

Courtesy of Matika Wilbur

Being a modern American Indian often requires balancing cultural traditions and family obligations with the demands of the non-Native world. Which essentially means being an ambassador between your tribe and non-Indians.

“We walk in two worlds as young, Native people,” 28-year-old photographer Matika Wilbur said. “We learn to navigate with a moccasin on one foot and a tennis shoe on the other. Maybe we’ll go to ceremony on Saturday night and we’ll come out and use our iPhone.”

Wilbur is from the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes. She grew up on the Swinomish Indian Reservation in Skagit Valley, Washington about one hour south of British Columbia. She was formally trained at the Brooks Institute School of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. She hopes her photography skills can help clear up some things.

“I’m here to carry the message from the silenced,” she said during her TED talk in Seattle earlier this year. “To show you some of Native America’s beauty and to encourage our collective consciousness to re-imagine the way we see each other.”

Currently, she is en route to the Southwest–stopping in Arizona and New Mexico–as part of a three-year project to photograph Indigenous peoples from every federally recognized tribe in the United States. But that’s no easy task.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. interstate system has a total length of 47,182 miles. There’s no telling how much of that Wilbur will cover, as she zig-zags through the country. To meet her goal by August of 2015, she must visit four tribes per week.

“My objective is to unveil the true essence of contemporary Native issues, the beauty of Native culture, the magnitude of tradition, and expose our vitality,” Wilbur said in her Kickstarter video.

The endeavor is called Project 562. Why 562?

“Most people don’t know that there are 562 federally recognized tribes (which has changed to 566 in the last few years),” Wilbur said on the crowd-funding site. “And it has been my observation that the general stereotype is that we haven’t survived. And so, giving power to a number was important to me-even though finding an accurate number is difficult, given the ever changing political climate.”

Wilbur began her trip at the end of November last year. Traveling by–and occasionally sleeping in–her car, she visits tribal reservations and communities one-by-one with her Mimiya film camera and a Canon EOS 7D, seeking to capture communities as they are, highlighting their unique cultural identity, focusing in on the significance of tradition for Native peoples.

After speaking at TED, Wilbur launched a kickstarter campaign, earning more than $35,000 ($5,000 above her goal).

She has several speaking engagements and museum exhibitions already lined up once she completes the project and has a mobile app in the works that will allow users to experience Project 562. For Wilbur, it’s important to make art accessible and affordable for everyone. “I’ve struggled with the eliteness of the art world,” she said.

Wilbur estimates that she’s been to about 160 tribes so far.

“I’ve been taken aback by people’s kindness. People have been so generous with me,” she said. “How magical that Indian people everywhere I go take me in, invite me to stay, they feed me, give me gifts, they introduce me to their family and are generous and kind with me. It’s so overwhelming.”

Wilbur only raised enough money for materials and gas and can’t afford to pay for someone to accompany her, so she picks up and drops off friends–new and old–along her route.

The significance of Project 562 hasn’t gone unnoticed. While Native news outlets, like Indian Country Today (which is like the New York Times for Indian Country), have covered her story since it was just an idea, mainstream outlets have also taken interest in the project.

Despite the publicity, for Wilbur, the struggle is real.

“I say to myself, ‘You say that [you want to do this], but how much am I really willing to sacrifice on a personal level to make this happen? For me, it means sacrificing health insurance and Restoration Hardware sheets, they fall by the wayside…and driving sucks. When I go to these communities and people share their stories with me, I sort of represent hope for them. They trust me.”

In addition to educating non-Natives about contemporary Indian culture, Wilbur would like to see Indians represented in mass media by Indians. “I’d like to see us represented in a way that’s authentic and empowering, that moves away from stereotypical Hollywood representations.” She hopes Project 562 “inspires, empowers and encourages younger generations to tell them to as well.”

Like any professional photographer, though, Wilbur is particular about her craft. She prefers shooting film because she is able to create silver gelatin prints. After developing the film, she hand-colors sections with oil paint. She is meticulous, but her photographs are well-worth the effort.

Below are a selection of her favorites thus far from Project 562. They give a glimpse into the diversity of today’s Native America.


“Kumu Ka’eo is one of the few teachers who teach in the style of Kealaleo, under Kumu Ipolani Vaughan, a Hawai’ian language immersion program based in Honolulu, Hawai’i. I was so grateful to meet Ka’eo. He shared Hawai’ian culture with me, and we found solidarity in our traditional beliefs.”


Steven Yellowtail is a rancher, as is his father. She met Yellowtail last summer and was moved by his generosity. She was sick and worn down from traveling. He insisted she stay in his room and he would sleep on the couch. Though she is friends with his older sister, she had never met him before. This was one of many stories of kindness and generosity she tells of her travels.


“This is the lovely Dr. Mary Evelyn Belgarde from the Pueblo of Isleta and Okay Owinge,” Wilbur said of the retired University of New Mexico Indian education professor. “Mary is very passionate about training teachers to work within indigenous communities.”


“I had a recurring dream of these ladies protecting Eckos, and this is exactly what that dream looked like,” Wilbur shared. “These ladies are my adapted sisters. I have tremendous respect for their commitment to traditionalism.”


Pictured are American Indian Movement activist, John Trudell, and his son Coup “Grasshopper” Trudell in the Mission District of San Francisco where they live. Of the photo, Wilbur said, “John is one of my longtime AIM heroes, so I was flabbergasted when I knocked on his door in the Mission District and he answered. I loved hearing John Trudell speak. He is inexplicably intelligent and our conversation really resonated with me.”


“Tatanka Means is one of the only young men that I photographed that arrived with a prayer tie and offering for our photoshoot,” Wilbur shared. “He comes from greatness. He is the son of [Native American activist] Russell Means. While I visited with Tatanka, I got the overwhelming feeling that I was in the company of a great leader. Or maybe it’s just his laughter.”


“This is a photo of my cousin Anna,” Wilbur said. “Anna is 16 years old, and she is Swinomish, Hualapai, Havasupai, Cherokee, Chemowave, and Skowlitz. Isn’t she beautiful? I just love this photo. I trust that Anna will be another fierce warrior woman, watch out for her, she has greatness inside of her.”

So, what does it mean to be an Indian in the 21st century? Wilbur hasn’t come to any conclusions just yet.

“I’m not sure. I’m still trying to figure that out,” she said. “Some Indians are very traditional, while others are not.”

Wilbur is launching another fundraising campaign in January. She’ll be collaborating with Bethany Yellowtail, a fashion designer who is Crow and Northern Cheyenne, to create special gifts for backers of the project.

You can follow Wilbur’s journey on her blog.