Matika Wilbur, Swinomish/Tulalip, brought more than her finely-crafted photographs of American Indian and Alaska Native women to the opening of her exhibit at Harvard on April 28. She brought passion, commitment, endurance and women’s stories, both her own and those told to her, as she trekked more than 250,000 miles back and forth across the United States over the past three years.
In 2012 Wilbur, now 32, sold everything she owned and began Project 562, a commitment to document all of the American Indian and Alaska Native tribes in the U.S. The idea for Project 562 (which has become a slight misnomer as there are now 567 federally-recognized tribes in the U.S.) developed when she was a teacher at Tulalip Heritage High School looking for positive images of the Indigenous Peoples of North America to include in her curriculum. “I looked for images depicting the dignity and courage of indigenous people to show our babies, images that would inspire and lift up our young students,” 19 of whom she had buried in her five years of teaching.
“Our kids need to see ourselves differently, not as the subject of poverty porn,” Wilbur said.
But those images were nowhere to be found, so Wilbur set out to create them, to tell the stories of courage and endurance that have sustained American Indians into the 21st century. Travelling in her RV (nicknamed “Big Girl”), on foot, by train and on horseback, Wilbur has so far visited about 350 tribes and estimates the Kickstarter-funded project will probably continue for another couple of years, given frequent interruptions for speaking engagements and exhibits like this one.
“Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Stories of Native American Women” opened in conjunction with the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s one-day Native Peoples, Native Politics conference on April 29. Because Radcliffe is an institution historically dedicated to the education of women, Wilbur decided to focus the exhibit on some of her photos of women.
The invitation to exhibit at Harvard came at the end of last summer. “It had been a hard summer,” she said. “I had visited 30 tribes” and the stories she had heard from women “laid so heavily on my heart.”
Grandmas who had only one child because they were forcibly sterilized in IHS hospitals. A woman who was raped when she was in the Army, then demoted and sent home when she sought justice. A child born of rape meant she would not again find her place in her tribe. Grandmas taken advantage of by big oil tycoons who turn up with tens of thousands of dollars in cash and tell them they only want permission to test for oil. Oil spills with clean up crews in full hazmat suits while 10 yards away kids play. Women telling how difficult it is to choose a mate when racist policies determine the tribal identity of their children.
“I wanted to come here and share beauty, light and love, but Native American women are the most victimized in the country; for them, sexual assault is not a question of if, but of when,” Wilbur said.
“These stories deserve to be told, but who will tell them and how will they be told?” she asked. “The Native women here tell their own stories in this exhibit. They are a treasure trove of knowledge, strength and endurance. Women save our languages, our seeds, our lives while birthing the next generation.”
An exhibition catalog, co-authored by Adrienne Keene, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, provides background for each photo. For example, Ramona Peters, Mashpee Wampanoag, is director of her tribe’s Historic Preservation Department and an artist. She is quoted as saying, “When I was a kid, I used to feel that we were the ones who made the big mistake [of welcoming 17th century colonizers] and caused this big problem. No. We should never be ashamed of being welcoming. We should never be ashamed of being friendly. That’s how we were created. That’s a big part of our culture, even today.”
Dr. Mary Evelyn Belgarde, Pueblo of Isleta and Ohkay Owingeh, whom Wilbur described as a “powerhouse grandmother” and educator, asked: “When are we going to stop asking our children to choose between cultural education and Western education? I think we are ready to stop the assimilation process. The time to change is now.”
Jane Blackmen, who is a member of the Pala Band of Mission Indians, appears in the exhibit. Mission Indians, Wilbur said, is “a term for many Indigenous Peoples of California who were forcibly relocated and enslaved by Spanish colonizers and missionaries.”
“Jane is a Catholic,” Wilbur said. “A part of that really breaks my heart, and a part of me has huge respect for her.”
Wilbur stays with tribes for a day—or a month—depending on circumstances. And she endures, creating glorious photos and hearing the tough stories that so often go with them. “There’s no protecting yourself from feeling disheartened,” she said. “But we love each other, we love our babies and we love this land. The people take care of me, feed me, send me on my way. It is a great honor and I am proud to be able to share these stories with you. Who else will tell our story?”
“Seeds of Culture” is free and open to the public. It runs through May 28 at the Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery, Byerly Hall, Radcliffe Yard, 8 Garden Street, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. To see more of Matika Wilbur’s work, check out her Instagram page and her blog.