On July 4, 1776, the U.S. established itself as independent. Although the American educational system teaches children that his land was “discovered,” it’s history does not begin with the foundation of government—and even that story has its roots woven deeply into the history of the Indigenous people who walked, farmed, hunted and lived here long before Europeans came and colonized the ground which we now call home.
“Who Americans call their founding fathers — who we call the people who incited some of the largest genocide we have ever experienced — those folks came out to Haudenosaunee [an Indigenous word for Iroquois] country and they learned about Democracy from Haudenosaunee’s.” With this, photojournalist Matika Wilbur begins to illustrate American history from her knowledge as a member of the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes of Washington state. “What’s interesting is that when those forefathers came out and they learned that the clan mothers and chiefs make decisions collectively for the people, those forefathers went back and said, ‘They’re doing that really well. Let’s leave out the whole part about women getting to choose the leaders.’ [Laughs]. The very beginning construction of our narrative in this country, with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the way that all this was formed was all based on Indigenous belief systems. However, that story is never told.”
The stories of the Indigenous tribes that occupied this land are all but erased from the history books, except for the occasional “outdated, ‘leathered and feathered’ historical figure that perpetuates Western ideals, which is that Native Americans are inferior, savage, for mascotry, facing extinction and certainly people of the past,” as Wilbur puts it.
Wilbur’s talents are many — in addition to photojournalism, her resume includes writing, activism and teaching — and her passion runs deep. After college at Brooks Institute of Photography, now known as the Brooks Institute, she collaborated on projects with photographers for Vogue and Vanity Fair, where her skills were honed, but it wasn’t for her. She later worked freelance for a few national syndications reporting on Indigenous communities and realized that more reporting on her own communities was lacking. So, she came home.
“When I came back my mom was like, ‘We only have seven language speakers left in our community, who are all in their 90s. Can you please photograph them?’” Wilbur recalls. After that project, which was titled “We Are One People,” Wilbur began work on her next project, “Save The Indian, Kill The Man”— a play on words of the policy passed by the U.S. government that forced Indigenous assimilation by taking Native children from their homes and placing them in boarding schools in an effort to “kill the Indian and save the man.”
Captain Richard H. Pratt, who founded the first of these schools, had previously performed experiments on Apache prisoners of war. He cut their hair, put them in uniforms and forced them to learn English and follow military protocols. Many of his captives took their own lives. It was after these experiments that Pratt requested funding for the so-called boarding schools. “The experience of taking children — brown children — from their parents is something that this country has done over and over again,” Wilbur acknowledges, noting the recent separation of children and their parents at the border. “It hasn’t just been native bodies, it has been brown bodies, because brown bodies are a threat to white belief systems.”
“I’ll never forget the stories from my community,” Wilbur begins, ready to talk about a young boy forced into one of the schools. The pain in her voice illustrates how deep the generational wounds run. “As soon as we got to those schools, they would scrub us because they thought that we were so dirty, that we had lice. Nuns started cleaning this little boy. Our knees and our elbows are more brown — that’s a brown body for you. She thought that they were more dirty, so she kept scrubbing them until they were bleeding. She sent him back to make his bed. When he went to his bed and soiled the bed with the blood from his knees and his elbows, he was brought to the other room and beat to death. He was screaming, and the kids all listened, and he didn’t come back. The kids were terrified. ‘If I bleed, I’m gonna die.’”
Wilbur was asked by the elders in her community to come home and teach. “They said, ‘We want you to work with kids.’ I said, ‘I don’t even like kids.’ [Laughs]. I am not a teacher. I have no desire to be a teacher whatsoever.” But Wilbur taught and sees it as a blessing. “It was while I was teaching that I really reconnected with my community … We maintain healthy relationships in tribal communities by having strong relationships with our children and other people’s children.”
Wilbur was asked to put together what is referred to as photovoice curriculum, “images with narratives from a first-person perspective that humanized Native America.” Given her background it seems like the perfect fit, but she found it to be extremely difficult and, in the end, often detrimental to her kids because of the current media narrative behind Indigenous photos. “I remember showing them Aaron Huey’s TED Talk, because part of our curricula is a public speaking discussion. I was looking for a TED Talk about Native Americans, and the only one that came up at the time was the one by Aaron Huey. I showed that to the kiddos to see what they would think, and at the end of it they were crying. There was a very strong visceral reaction from most of the students.”
Huey, a National Geographic photographer, kicked off his career by shooting the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, one of the most poverty-stricken counties in America, perpetuating stereotypes and creating what Wilbur referred to as “poverty porn.” “I watched [the images] reach down into the bellies of my students and make all of them sick. I realized that any work I did would have to be to make our students whole and healthy. Not to make them sick.”
“We decided that we should visit all the tribes and put together a curriculum, because it needed to be done. That’s why I sold everything and hit the road. I believe genuinely that until we change the narrative and include Indigenous people in popular culture or Western culture or public curriculum — until that happens, we are going to see the same results with our children, and we want that to change.” Wilbur refers to the suicide and incarceration rates in Native communities. The ways in which groups are represented have a tremendous effect on how they see themselves, and how society perceives them. “At the core, Project 562 is an effort to create, yes, a series of photo books, but also to create a public curriculum we can use and distribute in public schools around the country,” Wilbur notes.
Now in its fifth year of production, Project 562 is coming close to being finished. “I have about 100 tribes left to go to,” Wilbur told us. She is steadily working towards going to the homes of the people within the more than 562 sovereign Native American territories in the Unites States, spending time with them and photographing them in order to change the way in which all children learn about Indigenous cultures.
“Until we acknowledge that we are living on stolen Indian land that was developed on the backs of slaves, and that the accumulated wealth of this country was accumulated because of segregation, because our ancestors weren’t allowed to own land, because lending has never been equal, because of the structure that was built to support white supremacy — until we acknowledge that, I don’t think that we have moved in a new direction,” she asserts. Wilbur moves forward with powerful determination, the support of her elders, newfound friends and family and those of us who see the value in her work.
Wilbur explains that one of the biggest lessons she has learned from this experience is that people are kind. “There really is nothing to fear in strangers,” she concludes. “I think strangers are just people who are yet to become family. There is a very small percentage of very scary people in this country. The majority of this country is very good. Bipartisanship aside, right or left wing, when you go to someone’s home, they are kind to you.”
Kindness, however, can only get us so far if we do not listen and support the communities that are being marginalized. Project 562’s meaningful artistry and powerful representation can, hopefully, help change the dialog around our history, so that we can change the way in which we treat those traditionally underrepresented.