SHERIDAN — To the residents of Montana and Wyoming, Indian culture is not a foreign concept. However, there are nearly 600 federally recognized tribes existing in the United States, each with their own customs, history and traditions and many of which are completely unknown to mainstream culture.
Matika Wilbur, a widely-exhibited and collected photographer from the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes in Washington, is on a mission to change that.
Wilbur has embarked on a journey to visit and photograph each of the tribes in America in their natural state to reveal a realistic image of contemporary Native Americans in the 21st century. “Project 562” is named for the number of existing tribes at the start of the project, a number that has grown even since the project began.
A similar project was attempted by Edward Curtis, a non-Native American portrait photographer who embarked on a mission to photograph American Indians more than a century ago.
However, many of his subjects’ names and tribe names were not recorded and many of the props he paired the subjects with were not representative of their local culture.
A project’s beginning
“The project evolved out of necessity,” Wilbur said. “I’ve had a series of successful Native photos in the past that have brought me some recognition for my art nationally.
“I’d give lectures and people would ask me about the Apache or the Pueblos or other tribes and I’d have to say I don’t know anything about contemporary Indian cultures outside of my own,” she added. “So I started to look for info and there is not one place to find collective info about the different cultures anywhere. No library or article or photo book anywhere.”
Wilbur has already traveled more than 60,000 miles and photographed almost 200 tribes and is on track to complete her project in two years.
Representatives from the local Crow Nation have participated in her journey and one local contributor has made a sizable impact on the project.
Bethany Yellowtail, a 2007 graduate of Tongue River High School who was born and raised on the Crow Indian Reservation and went on to become a fashion designer in Los Angeles, became acquainted with Wilbur through a mutual friend in California.
The meeting occurred shortly after Wilbur had kicked off her 562 journey.
When they first met, Yellowtail had been working as a fashion designer in LA for more than three years. She remained active in Native American youth programs and arts organizations. Like Wilbur, she maintained her connection to her tribe through her work, designing clothing she felt represented modern Indians.
“Growing up, I did not have any Native role models who were present in mass media,” Yellowtail said. “Especially in fashion, Native culture is misappropriated season after season with fringed, feathered, beaded and buckskinned clothing and when those images are set in the minds of our youth, what does that tell them? It tells them that they must be what the image is…impoverished, oppressed, stereotyped and yet still not ‘Indian enough.’”
When she met Wilbur, Yellowtail said she knew she wanted to help with the project.
Her first contribution was to bring Wilbur home with her for the Crow Fair — a weeklong tradition of powwows and parading, naming ceremonies and Indian rodeos.
“Being Crow,” Yellowtail said, “we’re from the plains, so we’re a horse and teepee culture, and her tribe is a canoe and smokehouse culture so it was really important for me to share that with her.”
While in Montana, Wilbur photographed Yellowtail, her brothers Matthew and Stephen, and Joree LaFrance, a Dartmouth student who carries the title of Miss Crow Nation, as representatives of their tribe for the project.
“Matika is amazing,” Matthew Yellowtail said. “She is just so driven and motivated, I am really in awe of her. The amount of courage it takes to drop everything you know over a gut instinct and just trust it is inspiring.”
Wilbur allows her subjects to choose where and how they would like to be photographed, stipulating that it must be somewhere on their native land that they normally frequent. Yellowtail chose to be photographed in Western attire on his family’s ranch where he helps his dad.
“It’s great that she’s shedding light on the diversity of cultures within each individual tribe, going against the generalization that all of us are prancing around fires,” he said. “It’s nice to have something portray us in a more modern, forward-thinking, positive approach that doesn’t show us as impoverished victims to the government. It’s showing that we are capable and modern and contributors to society.”
Yellowtail and his siblings grew up spending Sunday through Thursday nights in Ranchester to attend Tongue River schools and heading back to the reservation on weekends to help on the ranch. The lifestyle showed the Yellowtail children the importance of cultures being tolerant of one another.
Bethany Yellowtail said when she was in school she was one of only three Native children and the racism and animosity was present as soon as she started school in kindergarten.
“Discussion is always about the poverty and the struggle of my people, it’s never about the beauty,” she added. “And if it is, it is about the historic beauty and the ancestors. It’s like our generation now doesn’t exist. That’s why the project was so important to me, it shows us as we are now and opens this much needed conversation.”
Funding modern art
Yellowtail’s involvement grew from offering her home and family to the project to offering a direct collaboration as well.
The journey Wilbur took on turned out to be harder, and more expensive, than she had planned. To help ensure the completion of the project, she opened a 30-day crowd-funding campaign on kickstarter.com with a fundraising goal of $56,000.
To encourage donations, Yellowtail created a line of custom clothing to be used as gifts to donators. The pair collaborated to transform Wilbur’s images from her project into fabric textiles designed by Yellowtail.
One example of the creations, Yellowtail’s favorite piece, was a dress called the “Paddle to Quinalt.”
An annual tradition of Wilbur’s people, the northwest coastal natives embark on a weeklong canoe journey every August on the Washington coast. They set a destination point, canoe, pray and hold ceremony, out on the ocean for the whole week. As the men neared their home, the women of the tribe dance and sing on the beach, letting the men know they are almost home. The songs are sounds of relief to the weary paddlers. Wilbur’s photograph of this ritual was transformed into a dress by Yellowtail.
“It was such a powerful image to think that hundreds of years ago they were doing this to bring their fishermen back to shore and this is still happening,” Yellowtail said. “I had never known about the small tribe of northwest coastal natives. It’s beautiful imagery.”
Complete with custom gifts and a flurry of media attention, the kickstarter campaign ended recently exceeding its initial goal by nearly 400 percent, raising more than $200,000 from 3,882 contributors.
“562 is sparking conversation that’s questioning the concept of being ‘Indian enough’ without making people feel like they are ignorant,” Yellowtail said. “It is a trip to see how people respond or what they ask you when they first find out you’re Indian because a lot of times they just don’t know. They say things like, ‘You don’t look Indian.’ That’s where the question arises of, are you Indian enough?”
Yellowtail is hopeful that the images of what a “real Indian” looks like today will start breaking down the stereotypes and start building on the conversations started about what it really means to be an Indian in modern America.
“To us, it’s just about our communities,” she said. “Native people are raised to remember where we came from and remember to give back. It’s this inherent quality in our culture.”
The University of Washington Press has offered to publish the portraits and stories collected in a multi-volume fine arts series. The Tacoma Art Museum is featuring select images in an exclusive show in May. The project was also featured on the New York Times website.
Those interested in staying up to date on the progress of the project can do so via twitter by following the girls — @byellowtail and @matikawilbur.