Balanced and accurate images of Native Americans are difficult to find in mainstream media. When consumers are not witnessing degrading manifestations of the Native American male through sports mascots or watching another failed attempt at “haute couture” by appropriation of a traditional headdress on a magazine cover, we’re limited to depictions of the “spiritual warrior” standing alongside the white savior starring in a cowboy western. In short, no one seems to be getting it right.
These visuals are antiquated inventions of minds that don’t find their roots in indigenous nations. They all share ideologies stemming from tropes of indigenous people as “lesser citizens,” which couldn’t be further from true.
Last year renowned photographer Matika Wilbur set out to adjust the spotlight by launching Project 562. After selling all of the possessions in her Seattle apartment and packing a few mementos into her car, she embarked on what would become a multi-year, national project dedicated to photographing every federally recognized tribe in the United States (which now includes 566). The project attempts to show Native Americans beyond the perceived identities of assimilated, relocated and defeated people.
Beginning as a Kickstarter campaign that needed $54,000, Project 562 raised more than $213,000 with 3,800 monetary supporters. The Project 562 team travels year-round documenting traditional and contemporary belief systems, language, songs and dances in a myriad of settings.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are approximately 5.2 million Native Americans living in the United States. The photography, videography and interview sessions of the project will take place in rural, urban and suburban spaces, capturing the cultural, political, religious and economic variety of Native Americans. Wilbur hopes to cause a shift in consciousness from the nineteenth century images of indigenous people that remain prevalent in today’s society.
The inaugural exhibition of Project 562 debuted at The Tacoma Art Museum on May 17. Entitled “Photographic Presence and Contemporary Indians: Matika Wilbur’s Project 562,” the exhibit features 40 Native American Portraits with accompanying audio clips from select participants. The exhibit is slated to run through October 5, 2014.
The Project 562 Team will continue their work until they’ve captured every indigenous nation on camera, estimated to end in 2015. The team is also working on a multi-volume book, a series of exhibitions curated from the photos and a curriculum for grade school students.
Project 562 founder Matika Wilbur (Tulalip and Swinomish Tribes) is one of the leading photographers of the Pacific Northwest region. She has exhibited her work in regional, national, and international venues such as the Seattle Art Museum, the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, the Royal British Columbia Museum of Fine Arts, and the Nantes Museum of Fine Arts in France. Wilbur is a graduate of the Brooks Institute of Photography in California and a certified teacher at Tulalip Heritage High School.