Three years ago, Matika Wilbur sold almost everything she owned, left behind her apartment in Seattle, and set out on the open road. The former high school teacher had one goal: to photograph members of each federally recognized Native American tribe in the United States.
Wilbur’s photographs are mostly black and white. She shoots on a Canon EOS 7D digital, and a Mamiya film camera. When she finishes Project 562 (named for the number of federally recognized tribes at the time Wilbur began her work), she plans to compile the photographs and share them with the public through various publications, exhibitions and curricular material.
To date, the 31-year-old has driven more than 250,000 miles and has nearly completed her journey. She will finish her tour at the end of the month in the northeastern US. Wilbur has taken thousands of pictures so far. She has met with a range of people that include PhDs, lawyers, tribal elders, designers, grandmothers and artists. But sometimes she worries it isn’t enough.
“I’m ultimately doing this because our perception matters,” she says. “Our perception fuels racism. It fuels segregation. Our perception determines the way we treat each other.”
She eventually traveled to South America, where she began photographing indigenous people. One night, in the mountains below Machu Pichu, she dreamt of her late grandmother. Her grandmother told her it was time to return home; to bring the lens to her own people. Several years and two Kickstarter fundraisers later, Project 562 was born.
But the physical exhaustion is often less difficult to bear than the emotional weight of the stories she has heard. Wilbur speaks with passion and distress about the young Native Americans who are growing up on the reservation today. “What happens when a people have lost their sense of connection to the land, to their spirit, and to the things that make them whole?” she says. “They look around, and wonder about the future. And they turn to things that fill those holes inside of them.” Things like drugs and alcohol.
“Over the years, I’ve lost several students to drug addiction and suicide,” she recalls. “Some of our students see this and say: ‘is this what it must mean to be an Indian?’
Today, Native Americans comprise a little under 2% of the US population or, according to the latest Census data, about 5.2 million people. And “three out of four of our women today have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault,” Wilbur adds.
And so, her gaze is fixed firmly on the horizon, on tomorrow, on moving beyond the past, in every sense. “Our goal as people has always been to be of one mind, one heart, and one spirit,” she says.
For more information on Wilbur’s traveling exhibit, visit Project 562 or browse through her Instagram (@matikawilbur) feed.'
This article was originally published in the Guardian.