Combating the Misrepresentation of Native Americans, Through Photos

Last December, Native American photographer Matika Wilbur embarked upon a journey with a staggeringly ambitious goal — over the next few years, she hopes to photograph members of every single Native American tribe. There were 562 recognized by the federal government when she started (and 566 now), hence the project's title: Project 562.

On the most basic level, her photography simply and elegantly seeks to answer an immeasurably complex question: what does it mean to be Native American today? There's no neat or easy answer to that query — not that American mass media has tried particularly hard (or at all, really) to come up with one. When representations of Indigenous people and cultures do appear in pop culture, the depictions tend to be either ridiculously stereotypical, shallowly and thoughtlessly appropriated, or they wander into the realm of offensive sexualized caricature with no connection to reality at all — an especially horrific tendency when you consider the fact that Native American women are raped and abused at epidemic rates. So, despite Johnny Depp's heartfelt insistence, Native children have nothing to look up to or identify with in his Tonto, and despite Chanel's tepid apologies, putting a model in a fashion headdress during a Cowboys & Indians-themed runway show is not "a tribute to the beauty of craftsmanship."

"I believe that the way that we're continuously misrepresented in mass media does have an effect on our younger generation," Matika tells me over the phone when asked to explain the motivation between Project 562. "It does shape the consciousness. It does set up a racist experience for my theoretical children and my nieces and nephews. If I can be a part of changing that, I'd like to be." Misrepresentation is far from the only issue with how Native Americans are depicted in the media — there's also the problem of visibility. Indigenous people are frequently and inaccurately portrayed as a dwindling population, as people of the past. In a recent TED Talk, Matika put it thusly:

Between 1990 and 2000 there were 5,868 blockbuster-released films. Twelve included American Indians. All of them showed Indians as spiritual and in tune with nature, ten of them as impoverished and/or beaten down by society, ten as as continually in conflict with whites. However, the image of the professional photographer, the musician, the teacher, the doctor — they were largely absent.

What's interesting is how this image manifests itself into our psyche. You see, when this image is shown to a young Native person, they report feeling lower self esteem and depressed about what they are able to become or likely to become. Shockingly, when shown to the white counterpart, their self esteem is raised.

"How can we be seen as modern, successful people if we are constantly presented as the leathered and feathered vanishing race?" she asks. It's not a rhetorical question — it's something her work looks to solve, in part by "counteracting these images to create positive indigenous role models for this century." When asked what she hopes to accomplish, she replies, "I hope that it can be about the people I photograph, an offering for the people. I really think that we're capable now of healing ourselves of the historical inaccuracies and traumas around Native America and this country." Project 562's Kickstarter page — which was funded last week, exceeding its $54,000 goal by a whopping $159,4161 — echoes this intention:

Imagine walking through an exhibit and realizing the complex variety of contemporary Native America. Imagine experiencing a website or book, that offered insight into every Tribal Nation in the United States. What if you could download previously untold histories and stories from Apaches, Swinomish, Hualapai, Northern Cheyenne, Tlingit, Pomo, Lumbee, and other first peoples? What if you had heard those stories in grade school?

According to the New York Times, once she's photographed all 566 tribes Matika intends to create "a moving photo exhibit, accompanied by a book, photographs, video and geographical mapping features to pinpoint tribes across the country" in order to share these stories.

So far, Matika has been to "180-ish, 184 maybe" tribes. Her constant traveling has kept her away from her home for over a year. ("I've felt homeless," she says, fairly nonchalantly. "Even though the people that have taken me in have been so hospitable and kind and generous, you know, you miss your bed and your smells. I miss my juicer."). So far, she's focused mostly on the West Coast: "There are 106 tribes in California and 19 in Arizona and 21 in New Mexico, and each takes three to five days," she explains. "Right now, I have four tribes left in Arizona, and I went through New Mexico last year, so I only have eleven left in New Mexico." She hopes to gradually journey east, weather permitting, over the next year. In the meantime, a fortuitously-timed TED Talk in New York City will give her an opportunity to visit the Shinnecock and Iroquois before her first exhibition at The Tacoma Art Museum in May, ensuring that some Eastern tribes will be represented in the showing.

Matika has made a great amount of progress, but she still encounters ignorance — which is disappointing, but hardly unexpected. "Recently [someone asked me], 'Okay, how many teepees have you stayed in since you've been on your journey?'" she recalls. "I was like, really? Really?" With that said, she's quite understanding: "It's not their fault," she insists. "At large, Indians are mostly represented as people of the past, so people are looking at Indians as people of the past. I understand that, so I don't take offense to that... but it does give me ammunition to want to change that."

In a recent post on Project 562's blog, Matika wrote:

People frequently ask me: "Why don't you photograph the REAL INDIANS?" As if "real" Indian identity should some how coincide with the look of poverty or stoicism.

I refuse to accept those identities as our only forms of representation.

We deserve to have heroes too. And we do, they are walking among us. They are our aunties that work at our clinics helping our grandmas and children get the healthcare they need; They are our farmers that cultivate our indigenous seeds; They are our uncles and grandpas who are fighting the good fight to protect our sacred sites and natural resources.

Of course, she's quick to note that she's far from the only Native American working to celebrate these heroes, nor is she the only talented indigenous artist to construct new forms of self-representation. "There are a lot of great indigenous artists and filmmakers and activists who are doing the same sort of work that I'm doing," she notes. "Tracy Rector of Longhouse Media... there are a lot of us: Adrienne Keene, who runs Native Appropriations. Photographers: Thosh [Collins], Nadya Kwandibens, Larry McNeil..."

"I don't stand alone in recognizing these misrepresentations," affirms Matika. And, as she told the New York Times, the overwhelming support for her project is a sign that thousands and thousands of people really want to see these stories told. She sees her work as just a starting-point, an entry to a conversation that will expand and proliferate from here. "I'm really just skimming the surface," she tells me. "Hopefully someone else will do more in-depth photo projects of each tribe. That would be awesome."

Images via Instagram.