Matika Wilbur Shares Project 562 Journey

Published on 12 March 2018

When Matika Wilbur recently visited the St. Louis College of Pharmacy campus, as part of the Liberal Arts Convocations Series themed “Bodies and Boundaries,” she spoke beyond her photography project, Project 562, and challenged the audience to reflect on the “historical amnesia” the United States educational system perpetuates regarding Native America.

At the start of the presentation, a crowd of students, faculty, staff and community members watched as Wilbur conducted a live Google search of “Native American,” which yielded search results featuring no contemporary representations of Native America.

“Native American stereotypes are engrained in the fabric of our country as historical people, as tribal and inferior, and most contemporary pictures of Natives are of the ‘noble savage,’ the red-skinned spiritual being — a creature fit for mascots,” Wilbur said. “At my core, I am a portrait photographer. I believe very deeply in telling positive stories through imagery. Project 562, in its essence, is an effort to show some of the stories of our resilient cultures and highlight some of those positive stories.”

In 2012, Wilbur sold everything in her Seattle apartment to embark on a journey that would take her across the country and back again, in an effort to photograph all 562 Native American sovereign territories in the United States. To date, Wilbur has been to an estimated 700 tribal communities, only 400 of which are federally documented tribes. When complete, Project 562 will result in a series of visual literacy curricula that will be distributed throughout public school systems.

“We wanted to change the way we see Native America, with honest, photographic representations and direct narratives of America’s First People.” Wilbur explained. “We look to drive the conversation forward with a new model of awareness that encourages U.S. citizens to evolve beyond the appropriation and neglect of indigenous images and traditions.”

Wilbur was accompanied by Bear Fox, a singer-songwriter group from Mohawk Nation, who opened and closed the convocation with music rooted in tradition. Both the music of Bear Fox and Wilbur’s work explored how one’s ties to the land can inform one’s identity. In stride with the theme “Bodies and Boundaries,” this convocations event asked the audience to expand their understanding of Native America by exploring different ways people relate to their bodies and to the land.

“Photography has often been called a kind of time travel – a window into the past,” said Brian Walter, Ph.D., associate professor of English and director of convocations. “Matika’s work not only opens a window into the past, but builds a bridge to the future. The same goes for the music of Bear Fox.”

In some Native American cultures, audiences raise their palms in the air to show their appreciation. To close out her presentation, Wilbur encouraged the crowd to raise their hands and revel in the shared energy of the room, demonstrating the need to really reflect on how we relate to our own bodies and each other.

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