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Photographer's decade-long, 600,000 mile journey shows Indigenous life in new book

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Say hello to Matika Wilbur.

MATIKA WILBUR: Oh, hello. Thank you so much. I'm so happy to be here.

BLOCK: She's a photographer based in Seattle.

WILBUR: I'm from the Swinomish and Tulalip Tribes here in Washington State. My Indian name is Tsa-Tsiq. It means she who teaches.

BLOCK: It's a fitting name. About 10 years ago, Wilbur set out to photograph members of all of the then 562 federally recognized Native American tribes in the U.S. So with Kickstarter backing, she spent the next decade traveling 600,000 miles on her quest. Here are just a few voices of those she met along the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

AUTUMN HARRY: (Non-English language spoken). My name is Autumn Harry. I'm a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe here in northern Nevada. And I am Paiute and Navajo.

ETHAN PETTICREW: Hello, my name is Ethan, and my Unangax name is Qanglaagix. And I am Unangax from Alaska.

ADRIENNE KEENE: (Non-English language spoken). Hi, everyone. This is Adrienne Keene. I am a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and I come from California.

BLOCK: Matika Wilbur's portraits of Native elders and kids, rappers, professors, artists and activists, and her interviews with them are now published in a huge book titled "Project 562: Changing The Way We See Native America." Wilbur calls her project narrative correction work aimed at countering insipid and toxic stereotypes of Native Americans.

WILBUR: When I was talking to folks, I was aiming to understand - what are some of the true stories about your people that you want people to know? And also, you know, we talked about the effects of colonization and assimilation, termination, relocation, the experience of boarding schools, and then, of course, the best parts - how we've healed from that and what our people are doing to move forward and to develop healthy and strong and thriving indigenous nations in their own community.

BLOCK: Matika Wilbur's photographs are stunning. We see two world champion hoop dancers, their bright regalia popping against a threatening sky, a woman peering out impishly through her fingers, inked with traditional Inupiaq tattoos and a comedy troupe, the 1491s, standing in profile in a line. We see just their dark silhouettes.

WILBUR: The 1491s are these five really, like, hilarious and brilliant men - Bobby Wilson, Ryan RedCorn, Sterlin Harjo, Migs (ph) - Migizi Pensoneau - and Dallas Goldtooth. You know, in the image, Bobby is picking his nose, and Sterlin is strangling Migs, and Ryan is tickling Sterlin, and Dallas wasn't there that day (laughter). But, you know, I even love that, like, Bobby's braid is sticking straight up at the end. And the 1491s happened when the internet first happened. And honestly, for me, watching the 1491s put out content was so meaningful for me because there was not a lot of Native humor that was accessible to us. Our humor is so prevalent in our communities, you know? It's like joy goes hand in hand with justice. So if you come to one of our doings, there will be laughter and loud laughter.

BLOCK: Yeah. I'm thinking about generational divides. And one of the things that an elder, Ralph Burns, said to you - he's been very active, I understand, trying to preserve Paiute culture. He said, sometimes I feel I should give up because kids seem not to really care, which has got to be such a daunting prospect for people of his generation.

WILBUR: Yeah. Ralph Burns is a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, where I photographed him in front of a rock formation known as Stone Mother in the photo, an incredibly important figure. The dine people call her White Shell Woman. People from several different tribes throughout the territory, they make these pilgrimage to that place to honor the Stone Mother or White Shell Woman. And so for me, I felt really, really deeply honored to get to spend time with Ralph. And it did make me very sad to hear him talk about the difficulty of passing on his cultural traditions to young people and to his community. And I think it's a common thread throughout many different communities, not just Native people, you know, like, elders saying - these young people, you know (laughter)?

BLOCK: Yeah, kids these days. Yeah, yeah.

WILBUR: Kids these days, you know? And I certainly can remember my grandma saying that about me, you know? So - and actually, you know what? When I look back on it - because Ralph has gone on now to the spirit world. And so I feel a little sad right now in this moment talking about him. And I hope that he was able to find somebody that would listen, and I wish that I would have been a better listener when my grandma was still alive.

BLOCK: Well, your book, the project, is dedicated to your young daughter, Alma Bee, and there's an image of her on the dedication page. She looks to be really young. She may be 1 in this photo. Can you describe the photo, what she's wearing, where she is?

WILBUR: Before the book begins, there's the dedication page, and it says - for Alma Bee, may your children hear and breathe the words of our indigenous ancestors, and may we all be so lucky to know an indigenous future. And Alma is standing in a place that's very significant to us on our traditional homelands here in Tulalip, but it's overlooking and pointing towards Skagit Bay with Swinomish in the background. And so, you know, I'm Swinomish and Tulalip. Alma is Swinomish and Tulalip, and so I wanted to take the photo somewhere where we represented both of our communities. She's wearing a traditional cedar headband that my Auntie Judy made for her. She has on a ribbon skirt. She's wearing dentalium. She has on a little kokum, a little grandma scarf. But yeah, she's just so precious in that little photo.

BLOCK: And when you talk to her - I mean, she is very young, but when you talk to her about this project and what your hopes are for her, what do you think she takes from that?

WILBUR: Well, she's 3 at the moment. But, you know, when I talk about an indigenous future, I'm talking about imagining a new world, a modern world that celebrates and uplifts our indigenous intelligence. And what would it mean for our children to know our languages and to incorporate that into their everyday lives? What would it look like for my baby, for Alma Bee, if she was able to be raised with a pedagogy that our cultural traditions, our belief systems, our value systems are incorporated into each of the lesson plans? You know, how profound would that be? And hopefully, you know, Alma will not have to carry the same shame, you know, that my grandmother had to carry for being a Native woman. Hopefully, she'll never see signs that say - no Indians or dogs allowed. Hopefully, she won't feel that - those feelings that my grandmother felt, that my mother felt and that even I felt. You know, like, what if she doesn't know that? What if she's free of that? And I have to believe that it's possible for her.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Matika Wilbur. Her book of photographs and interviews is "Project 562: Changing The Way We See Native America." Matika, thank you so much.

WILBUR: Oh, yeah. Thank you so much for having me, (non-English language spoken). Thank you, relatives, for letting me share with you today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.