Feminist Hero Friday: Photographer Matika Wilbur

by Abaki Beck

Photography has been a medium used for decades to “document” Native American life. Historically, these photographs helped whites and Easterners form ideas of who Native American were and how they existed. Often, these impressions were wrong, and locked Native Americans as part of a romanticized American past. Sometimes, photographers would even bring props or costumes for Native Americans to wear. Today, this stereotypical imagery persists: from mascots, to Halloween costumes, to “poverty porn” style news reporting. Matika Wilbur, this Friday’s Feminist Hero, has worked throughout her career to combat that.

Matika is a Swinomish and Tulalip  woman reclaiming stereotypical narratives of Native Americans through photography. She is perhaps most well known for Project 562, which began in 2012. Project 562 aims to document all the tribes in the United States, which is where its name is derived from. When the project started, there were 562 federally recognized tribes. Today, there are 567. For the project, Matika and her team are travelling to every single tribal community across the country to photograph and interview people - to tell the true story of Native Americans. Parts of her project have already been shown at museums and galleries across the country. This is not just a photography exhibit, but also includes videos and interviews with tribal members. It is truly a creation by Native Americans, for Native Americans. Of course, these sorts of projects can educate non-Natives, but more importantly, they can be a source of pride and empowerment for Natives themselves, particularly Native youth.

Before beginning Project 562, Matika was a renowned photographer and high school teacher in her own indigenous community. Her love for youth and the next generation is evident today - she often photographs young people and visits school. She has said that she hopes her work will inspire young Native people. In a recent blog post, she reflected on her visit with students at the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs who had been following her work:

“We can say it - Native children matter. They deserve to learn about themselves in a way that is honest….They deserve indigenous knowledge systems as part of their curriculum. And they deserve the same freedom and opportunities in our interconnected society as all children.”

The recent White House Initiative on Native American and Alaska Native Education report recommends that school need to pay attention to the impacts of mascots on Native American students, which the students they interviewed said contributed to negative classroom environments.  The American Psychological Association has also recommended that “Indian” mascots be retired due to the negative impacts on Native American children. Matika’s project is part of this effort as well - to reclaim and reassert indigenous identity and knowledge. Hopefully, this project will re-education non-Native communities about the diversity and beauty of Indian Country. But more importantly, work such as Project 562 empowers Native people recognize their own power and importance, which is so absent in mass media and public education. Work like this is a source of pride, empowerment, and an important way to record community history. Below, see some of our favorite photographs. You can view the Project 562 gallery here. We highly encourage that you follow her work and support truth-telling projects such as this in your own community!


Abaki Beck