Matika Wilbur is the kind of photographer who calls ahead. She laughs loud and makes friends easily and sleeps on the couches and floors of her subjects. If she gets sick, like she did this past August, after too many nights with no sleep, driving through the American West with her camera, she is offered an actual bed, and actually takes it. In August, it was Steven Yellowtail who insisted she take his bedroom and he would sleep on the family couch. He'd never met her before. He only knew she was a friend of his older sister's and that she was doing something she wouldn't be able to do unless she had couches and beds and floors to sleep on. What she's doing is spending several years—as long as it takes, and as long as the grant money and Kickstarter funds last—visiting and taking pictures of every Native American tribe in the United States.
She's been traveling a year so far, at the wheel of her improbable black sports car, one woman following her own grand vision. But she's also fulfilling what really is a communal mission: picturing Native America from the inside, for the first time. She's trying to bring "image justice," as one museum curator calls it, to the world of social justice. She is traveling long distances, sometimes to remote locations, but as a Native woman—she is of Swinomish and Tulalip descent, tribes near Seattle—each place is a version of her own home, and these are family portraits. She's trying to find methods of shooting and capturing that don't repeat her extended family's history in real life of being shot and captured, restricted and suffocated within artificial borders and frames.
By the end of the first year, she has thousands of pictures and has visited almost 200 tribes, but she also has more than 300 tribes to go and much more money to raise. If anyone can do this—and it's a fair question to ask whether anyone can—Wilbur is the one. From her childhood of being bused from Swinomish across a tiny channel to attend a white school in La Conner, to her teenage years of addiction and recovery, to her early training and career as a fashion photographer who finally dropped out when she found herself on a meaningless and exorbitantly expensive shoot in Malibu, she's had more struggle and adventure than many 80-year-olds. Next year, she's turning 30.
There's another photographer Wilbur is always compared to: Edward Curtis. Wilbur's first exhibition at Seattle Art Museum paired them, and, frankly, everybody gets compared to him if they take pictures of indigenous Americans. Curtis was based in Seattle and undertook exactly what Wilbur is doing, a national survey of Native Americans, except that he was a white guy who brought his own props and sprinkled them where he wanted them, never knew even the names of most of his subjects, and, whether knowingly or not, became one diplomatic arm of the regime laboring so hard at disappearing the Native people on this land. His famous 1904 photograph Vanishing Race is a diaphanous, arty portrayal of faceless Navajo on horseback, casting long shadows and kicking up romantic dust as they march toward their inexorable extinction. It's a white-supremacist fantasy.
This is the history Wilbur photographs against, full of stories that would be unbelievable if they weren't true—and supported by visual representations in photography, painting, and prints you can still find sometimes, lingering over a bar somewhere, or displayed in museums, maybe described in embarrassed terms, maybe not.
Another common visual from around Curtis's time: depictions of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which happened in 1876. George Armstrong Custer died ignominiously—even the mainstream news of the day in the New York Times called him "imprudent"—but in the art of the time, he appears as a hero. That art was also used as propaganda for the acceleration of the American government's attack on the people of the region during the Curtis years. This is also the history Wilbur makes art against, the history of art as propaganda for killing. Her project—Project 562, referring to the number of federally recognized tribes, give or take a few as administrative moods change—is propaganda for living. Each image contains only two parts: person, land. They are here.
Reenactors of Custer's defeat dress up and redo the events every June, and then two months later is Crow Fair, a whole insta-village of tepees that rises on the banks of the Little Bighorn River, in the shade of green puffy cottonwood trees. Bethany Yellowtail—a fashion designer in Los Angeles, an old friend of Wilbur's, and the sister of Steven Yellowtail—brought Wilbur to her first Crow Fair this past August. Established in 1904, Crow Fair is made for photography. All week long, there are giant celebrations: horseback parades, thousands of Crow members streaming by in full-body regalia, powwows, all-Indian rodeos. After Crow Fair, when Wilbur was recuperating at the Yellowtail ranch, Bethany had to return to LA, so Steven gave Wilbur a tour of the ranch and they got to talking. He was barely 20 years old, home from college on break, and arose every morning at 5 to help his father with the horses.
The Crow people have a long history of ranching—more than a hundred years now, ever since European Americans hunted the bison almost into extinction to starve the Crow of their food source and push them onto fixed lands. (Crow Fair was the brainchild of a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent who modeled it after Midwestern county fairs to encourage agricultural lifestyles; eventually, Crow people cut the 4-H and tailored the fair for themselves.)
Steven Yellowtail is a proud rancher, the son of a proud rancher, and has a future beyond ranching if he wants it. He exemplifies not only Native survival but continuing adaptation. It turns out that this is what Wilbur is looking for when she's searching for subjects. It's a quality that applies to all sorts of people all over the country, of all ages, doing all sorts of jobs, wearing all sorts of different clothing. Wilbur thinks of the quality simply as leadership. These are her tribal leaders; she appoints them in her pictures. They are "positive" and "getting well" is how she puts it. What she means is that they might be, like her, forever in active recovery from specific addictions, or they might be, also like her, forever in recovery more generally from the condition of their shared violent history. They face forward but don't turn their backs on their past. They are not all happy-go-lucky. They do not all agree on specific political matters like the meaning of sovereignty or blood quantum (the government's measure of your blood to determine whether you qualify as a tribal member). But these are all issues that she brings up in their interviews. When Wilbur uses the word "recovering," you might think of its old meaning, "regaining consciousness."
Subjects pick where they want to be photographed. Wilbur's only request is that the location be within their indigenous lands. This can mean extreme circumstances, and Wilbur sometimes longs to return to the stability of studio photography. But for Project 562, she'll take the picture anywhere, regardless of conditions. To get one shot, she rode a Natives-only helicopter down into the interior of the Grand Canyon. She followed another subject to the rim of Hawaii. At the ocean edge of Washington State, she waded with her camera, following twin brothers, into the frigid water on the sacred, private beach of the Quinault Tribe. On that freezing errand, she was assisted by a young volunteer named Coup Trudell, who held the portable light stand and its umbrella aloft as the waves crashed closer, the tide moved in, and the sun went down. Trudell's father is John Trudell, the spokesman for the United Indians of All Tribes' takeover of Alcatraz in 1969. This past summer, Wilbur photographed the Trudells on the street in the Mission District in San Francisco, where they live.
As for Steven Yellowtail, he wanted his photograph made on the ranch. He wanted to stand with his prize horse. He wanted to wear chaps and cowboy hat, not buckskins, beads, feathers, warbonnet—not Crow Fair stuff. When he talks about ranching, he calls it "cowboying," Wilbur notes. He shared with her that he's been alternatively accused of not being Indian enough or being too Indian, which she can relate to; it's a phenomenon she terms the "lateral racism of the younger generation," the latest set of judgments placed on an adapting people with an oppressive past.
Out on the shoot, Wilbur begins with a digital camera. She shoots a hundred frames or so, while Yellowtail gets used to the general presence of her and the lens. When they're both relaxed, and she can feel what she calls "the connection," she takes out her Mamiya RZ67.
The Mamiya RZ67 is a box-shaped 6x7 cm. camera with a back that rotates 90 degrees for vertical or horizontal composition. Sam Ameen, the legendary South African black-and-white printer based in Santa Barbara, is Wilbur's chosen printer. Taking into account the price of film and silver gelatin print development, Wilbur estimates that every frame costs her $1.75—one reason she sleeps on people's couches rather than hotel beds.
In Montana that summer day, she uses a wide-angle lens. The streaky sky, blazingly bright to the eye, will appear in her photograph of Steven Yellowtail as shades of gray. His cowboy hat will be purest black. It dips down over his eyes. The head of the horse—dark, shiny, proud—is cradled in the crook of his arm. The horse is nuzzled, contrastingly, against the man's crisp white button-up shirt, tucked and belted neatly with a glinting buckle. At the bottom right corner of the photograph, fluffy stalks of grass jut up into the frame, struck by light and blurred from swaying. The cluster of grass points toward the horse and the man, like the wind is giving a little blessing to the portrait.
Wilbur, after the photograph is printed, hand-colors sections of it with oil paint on the fiber-based paper. She highlights the horse's saddle, Yellowtail's chaps, and his only visible skin—hands, neck, face—in rich brown, which stands out only subtly in the field of printed grays, blacks, and whites. Legs rooted so strongly they're like extensions of the land, his body appearing to lean on the horizon itself, Yellowtail appears fairly epic. He looks great.
"But that's not how you photograph a horse!" he tells Wilbur.
The horse's ass, it turns out, is too small from this perspective. More of the horse's body should have been turned toward the wide-angle lens, he says. The horse looks like a mule, Yellowtail thinks.
Wilbur laughs. She has two reasons. One, the Crow are horse people. Before they were ranchers, they hunted bison, which you do on a horse. At Crow Fair, they made fun of Wilbur for being spooked around horses. Meanwhile, she made fun of the Crows for wearing life jackets while swimming by the Yellowtail Dam on the Bighorn River.
Of course she would take a photograph that made a prize horse look like a humble mule.
Then she laughs again, because "I always want my ass to look smaller."
This is how a picture from Wilbur's Project 562 gets made. Each one is an exercise in collaboration. Because of that, each is unpredictable. While outlining the fact of indigenousness, the series explodes what's inside those lines. Wilbur talks about The Exhibit—the final showing of all the pictures once she has visited all 562 tribes and made every image perfect—as the construction of an alternative universe: a Native America you can walk around inside of, unlike anywhere that has ever existed.
"When people walk through The Exhibit, they will see the canoe culture, the horse culture, the Swinomish, the Cheyenne, the Lummi, the regalia, the young, the old, the women with master's degrees from Stanford, the twins, the tattoos, the business suits... Then, then, finally, in that moment, there will be no denying that there is no such thing as an Indian," she says.
There will be infinity Indians, doing every last thing but vanishing.
Wilbur's home, the Swinomish Reservation, is immediately across the water from lily-white La Conner, Washington, a little town known for its quaint charm. Visitors go to La Conner to browse antiques and brunch in cute cafes with floral tablecloths. It is best suited for visitors not overly dismayed by the occasional appearance of mammy dolls in a display case.
Approximately zero-point-zero-zero percent of visitors to La Conner ever seem to find a reason to cross the channel to Swinomish, pronounced "SWIN-a-mish" (you rush to the end of the word). It would be surprising if many even knew Swinomish is there, despite these two places being the two naked, deforested banks of the same rivulet. The village and the reservation are connected by a bucolic two-lane bridge out of a movie. It's called the Rainbow Bridge, and its span is shorter than two football fields end-to-end. On the La Conner side are cottages, trimmed lawns, vanity mailboxes, and about 900 people.
That's about how many members are in the Swinomish Tribe, but the population on the rez—only 15 square miles—is larger because of all the white renters who live there, too, most of them in big houses on the water. Though small, the reservation contains multiple worlds. Wilbur points out the administration building, the health center, the longhouse, the Shaker church, the Indian college, the cannery, the tall and imposing home of the tribal manager, and the tracts of subsidized housing all around it, whose yards are crowded with nets thrown over piles of bright buoys. The Swinomish fish; Wilbur's brother is a commercial treaty-rights fisherman, and what he brings back, Wilbur takes as gifts for the people she meets on the road.
Wilbur has to drive quickly because she knows too many people and would otherwise be stopped to talk. "That's Albert Dan's house there, and my first boyfriend's house was there, and this is my aunt Lisa's house, and..." —she would be there for hours. A little boy in a driveway stares as we pass, pointing a toy gun right at Wilbur's car. Maybe another photographer would take a picture of something like him. "I am not shocked by poverty," Wilbur says later. "I don't think it's the only thing worth photographing. These are the pictures that come out about our people. It's always the same thing. It's like all they can see is the three-legged dog."
She's talking specifically about another Seattle-based photographer, Aaron Huey, who has a coffee-table book out of photographs taken at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which in a TED talk he equated to a prisoner of war camp. Those photos have been adapted by street artist Shepard Fairey for billboards and have appeared in Harper's and National Geographic. But Huey will always be a white photographer on the rez, as he acknowledges. He told me recently that his pictures are bleak in part because so much is kept away from him: He's forbidden, most importantly, to photograph Native spirituality. Usually if something is hidden from a photographer, it's something ugly; in this case, it's something beautiful that's missing from his pictures.
Wilbur's home on the reservation is not among the subsidized houses, and it's not prime waterfront real estate. To get to it, you drive through the forest. The fastest way from Interstate 5 is to connect over to country Highway 20, where after you drive past the Swinomish Casino on the right, you see a sign that says, "Entering Swinomish Reservation," and then you blink, and then you see another sign that says, "Leaving Swinomish Reservation," as if it were a joke, as if the land itself were announcing having been absurdly sliced up. After that exit sign, you hit Reservation Road and take a left onto it. You soon find yourself on Wilbur Road.
Matika's mother's name is Nancy, and she's Swinomish. Matika's father, Kenny Joseph, is Tulalip, and he doesn't figure very large in Matika's telling of her stories. The two are not together. Nancy's home is perched at the end of the winding forested road, on the edge of Swinomish Channel, a narrow saltwater pass 11 miles long that leads in one direction toward Deception Pass and the other toward the San Juan Islands. To keep the commercial fishing boats moving through it, Swinomish Channel has to be dredged about every three years, which sometimes seems like it's not going to happen depending on funding from the Army Corps of Engineers. It's a happy place to be for Matika. "After living here, it's hard to think of anywhere else as good," she says, waving her hands around her mother's cozy kitchen. This is not the reservation Sherman Alexie talks about needing to leave lest you be stuck inside the "reservation in your mind." Growing up, Wilbur's friends on the rez thought her family had money, because they lived out here in the middle of nothing. Her mother always had several modestly paying jobs at once, actually—teaching Native history at the college level, advocating for Native issues in Olympia, running a cafe in La Conner. They didn't have much. But the Swinomish Wilburs are endowed with an illustrious past.
Laura Wilbur was born—she was emerging—right when Edward Curtis was hunting Vanishing Race. 1904. Laura lived to be 93 years old. She was a tribal senator for half a century. She became known for advocating for the tribe in Washington, DC, becoming friends with Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson. "But when visiting Washington, DC, she would always sit with her tribal members," her 1997 obituary in the tribal newsletter read. Matika was born eight decades after Laura, on April 28, 1984. Laura is the reason Matika is doing Project 562, in some ways.
"That house will become my house," Matika says outside an empty A-frame house, Laura's old house, tucked into the trees like a grandmother's house in a fairy tale.
Will Matika come back to live here after she's done with Project 562, when she gets finished with the road? "I'm still trying to figure that out," she says. Before the project, she'd been teaching at Tulalip Heritage High School and living in Seattle. She doesn't say anything else for a little while, which is unusual. She just drives.
Laura Wilbur is buried in the bumpy earth of the Swinomish cemetery, which is the first part of the reservation you encounter on the Swinomish side of the Rainbow Bridge. The bridge is how reservation kids get to school in La Conner every day. Wilbur rode the Rainbow Bridge.
"My family expected that I would become versed in Western education so that I could help my people," she says, adding that her name means "messenger." "I was always told that I would be a leader, that I would do great things, that I was important. The poverty porn that Sherman [Alexie] speaks of was not my reality. That doesn't mean that hopelessness isn't real for several young American Indians. It just wasn't my reality."
Wilbur has been written about enough times that she has a bit of a mythology. It usually centers on the narrative that leads up to her great-grandmother appearing to her in a dream and urging her to go home and photograph her people, and it starts with her addiction to alcohol and drugs beginning around the time her great-grandmother died, when she was 13, and ending in rehab at 17, where she was dragged by her mother with a bribe of a bottle of vodka. The rehab stuck. She's been sober for more than a dozen years.
While her family positioned her to be skilled in Western education, she was sometimes humiliated by the trips across the Rainbow Bridge. She was sent to special-ed accidentally, even though her grades were high, because that was just where the rez kids went, her teacher told her. At age 9, after having been turned down at ballet class for being different from the other girls, her school took a cultural enrichment trip to the reservation, where she was dancing powwow. She loved dancing powwow. Her father was a powwow dancer. But not like this, on display. Real learning of cultures only happened in one direction across the bridge; in the other direction went indifference punctuated by occasional voyeurism.
In high school, she channeled her energy into softball, volleyball, and basketball. She was popular. After graduation, she split, moved to Santa Barbara, and enrolled in photography school at the technically oriented Brooks Institute. At some point, she had attended a lecture on photography and decided that's what she wanted to do. When she found herself in Malibu at that vapid photo shoot, she decamped to the nonprofit world and to shooting in South America. When Wilbur moved back to Seattle, she started making pictures of Swinomish elders in a series she called We Are One People, which she exhibited first in La Conner in 2006. Her next series was We Emerge, another series of portraits, this one more arty.
One day, her mother drove her straight to Seattle Art Museum to make a cold call.
Matika did not want to get out of the car.
"We're here to see the curator of Native American art," Nancy told the receptionist.
"Do you have an appointment?"
Nancy said, "We do not need an appointment."
Hearing this exchange from the other end of the receptionist's phone, Barbara Brotherton, the museum's curator of Native American art, decided that anyone with this much pluck should get a hearing. She found an open conference room. She listened while Matika talked, not Nancy now.
"She was pretty forceful, and you know, I think she was like 23 years old then," Brotherton remembers.
By the end of the meeting, Wilbur had talked her way into becoming included in the large Salish exhibition Brotherton was organizing for SAM in 2008. "No," Brotherton laughs, "no other artist has ever gotten a show from me that way before."
In the exhibition, which headlined the museum that season, Brotherton contrasted Curtis's outsider gaze with Wilbur's view from within indigenous experience.
"What Matika's doing—it's such a simple thing," says Sandra Jackson-Dumont, the SAM education director who formerly worked at the Studio Museum in Harlem, an institution that was formed in the late 1960s as part of the civil rights movement. "This is social justice. It's image justice. It's people having the right to participate in their own image construction. There's a whole group of photographers out there right now who are going back to people and giving them agency, saying, 'Work with me, and we can create an image that reflects you.'"
Photography, Jackson-Dumont points out, once was in the hands of the few: those few who could afford a camera, or afford to go to a studio to have a portrait done. Or it was used by scientists and anthropologists voyeuristically studying the Other, researchers driving across bridges but never really knowing where they were once they got there, just like Wilbur's elementary-school class. Today, people have cameras in their hands. The word "selfie" has just been inaugurated into the OED. The predatory language of photography has been under suspicion at least since Susan Sontag wrote about it in the 1970s, and the technology caught up and then some.
"It's this really interesting shift in agency and the gaze," Jackson-Dumont says. "Now, it's like, 'I finally have control. I'm gonna stand here for hours just to get this photo exactly the way I want it.' You have the camera in your hand, and you are immediately able to publish it to the world."
Jackson-Dumont mentions another artist, Dawoud Bey, whose first solo show back in the 1970s at the Studio Museum was a survey of photographs he'd taken in Harlem—and who recently unveiled a permanent installation of photographs in the library at the University of Washington Tacoma. Bey's career began because of an exhibition that was offensively wrong in the same ways Curtis's images were. It was called Harlem on My Mind, held at the New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969, organized by a white curator at a white institution, and it didn't even include any artists. It was a history and anthropology show, with news footage and photographs and archival documentation of Harlem, just blocks north of the museum. At 16, Bey went to visit, mostly to see the protesters. But no protesters showed up that day, so he went in. He was taken by the photographs by neighborhood studio portraitist James Van Der Zee—later enshrined as a fine-art photographer by the mainstream art world—but overall, Harlem on My Mind mainly left Bey with the impression that Harlem was not represented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And that if he wanted to find Harlem, he'd have to do it himself.
Bey was an insider and an outsider in Harlem, like Wilbur is when she travels through Native America. Just as Wilbur always calls ahead, writing letters to tribal leaders to ask permission and access weeks before she arrives in a place, nobody in Bey's pictures is caught unawares. At Bey's opening in Tacoma in November, the people in the photographs were there in the room. Tasha Ina Church looked determined in her picture, unsmiling, her arms folded, but at the reception, she was all smiles. In an interview, she described appreciating Bey's way of collaborating with subjects rather than capturing their images as he saw them. She's part Nez Perce, and when people photograph her, especially for public uses—she's the director of a coalition called Vibrant Schools in Tacoma—they pressure her to wear beaded jewelry and braids. "But I think of myself as multicultural," she explains. "People always want me to be the version of them that they think I am."
Caleb Dunlap—one of the twins Wilbur followed into the freezing water at Quinault this summer, program manager at Chief Seattle Club—echoes the idea in an interview about what it was like to be photographed by Wilbur: "Her work is about changing how people perceive us by demonstrating how we perceive ourselves."
Wilbur herself is unpleasantly intimate with the unspoken edict that You should look like my idea of who you are. It penetrates even places where she might not expect it. Up on the cliffs of the Quinault Reservation above the sacred beach, during the days of the Tribal Canoe Journey, she was sitting outside her mother's tent, near her mother's pickup truck, in a circle of tents inhabited by her close family. She was home. Two journalists arrived from a newspaper that has written about her before, asking for an interview. The news has spread quickly that Project 562 was rewarded with a grant from the National Institutes of Health, and the reporters wanted to talk about that. The interview took a half hour. Afterward, she slumped her shoulders. "First, he asked, 'What are the values of Indian Country?' as if I could describe that," she says. She tried to deflect the question. "He asked three times. 'No, but what are the values of Indian Country?' It's always dumb questions. Always."
On the other hand, she relates a story about arguing with the editor of Native Peoples magazine when they put her on the cover of their September/October edition. First, the editor wanted a photograph of one of her subjects who'd appeared in regalia. Traditional sells. Wilbur countered that if the story was about her, she should be the subject of the cover photograph. "He said, 'Okay, can you wear regalia?'" In the end, Wilbur appeared wearing what you might see her wearing any day—her black leather jacket. "I told him, 'We're on the same team!' I won, but only because I shamed him, I think," she says.
She knows, meanwhile, that she's on the other side of image-making, too, controlling the means of production for her subjects. Like Bey, she is present in the final image: She's not pretending at documentary photography, and hand-coloring the prints is part of that. "When you add color to a project, it's very clear that this is what I want you to see," she says.
Yet she defers, to keep the collaborations honest. When she was on Kauai, Josh Mori—a master's-degreed activist and founder of two nonprofits—wanted Wilbur to photograph him displaying his tribal tattoos. "I would choose to depict him in a really different way," she says. "But then, would I be any different from Curtis? Doing this work really fucks with your perceptions."
In the photograph, Mori is shirtless and exuberant-looking. The word "MAKANA" appears in ink below his collarbone. If you look up "makana," you easily discover that it refers to a mountain located on the northern shore of Kauai and translates from Hawaiian to mean "gift" or "reward." Then again, if you don't need to look up "makana," it's yet another photograph entirely, like all of Wilbur's pictures, which split the subjectivity of the audience rather than the subjectivity of the pictured subject.
There is no Native America. There is no place to go to find all the tribes, no territory they own and inhabit besides the imaginary one, made of history and projection at best. Except, eventually, in the photography of Matika Wilbur. And just as Bey didn't want to take pictures of Harlem for the purpose of showing them at the white Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wilbur knows that a single mainstream institution is not the true home for Project 562. She pictures something more like a big-tent roadside attraction that can move, combined with a book, plus an app that Native kids can hold in their hands for the instant queuing-up of potential heroes they can't find on television and in movies. But institutional imprimatur will help her finish, which ultimately matters to her more than anything else. She does have an institutional exhibition scheduled: About 50 of her pictures, with audio of the interviews, will open in May 2014 at Tacoma Art Museum.
"Rock could not have been more supportive," Wilbur says, referring to Rock Hushka, the curator at Tacoma Art Museum. "When we first sat down, he said, 'How can we help?'"
Hushka is a fascinating character. An insider/outsider himself, he has taken on some of the region's most complicated exhibition projects, establishing Tacoma Art Museum as a home for socially engaged art even while the museum works to open a new wing devoted to a German couple's Western art collection. "Western art" usually means bronze sculptures of cowboys and is inevitably politically inconvenient.
But Hushka's commitment to the politically inconvenient is a hallmark of his curating. A few years ago, he opened an exhibition empty. It was supposed to feature a Puyallup carver named Shaun Peterson carving a log live and in person. But Peterson had determined that every log the museum found for his use was insufficient. Eventually, Peterson found a log, carved it in the gallery, and it now stands outside the museum, across the street, in the permanent collection of the City of Tacoma as a Puyallup welcome figure. Hushka did what Wilbur describes as a requirement in Indian Country: He went with the flow. "What I learned," Hushka says, "is to trust the artist, to believe in their vision, and when they change directions, to just take a deep breath and be confident that they're doing the right thing, and then also to learn to ask questions—to be willing to acknowledge all the things that you don't know and to accept responsibility for what you ask and how you ask it."
It's entirely believable that Hushka wants to feature Project 562 as more than a token of the Native American presence so lacking in the Western art collection the museum will soon highlight.
"If you look at the fact that Curtis's project took 30 years and bankrupted him, we certainly don't want that to happen," says Hushka, noting that Curtis's 700-some photographs have never, to his knowledge, been exhibited all in one place. "What she's proposing is so monumental that it's inevitably going to go through several iterations. I'm just thrilled that Matika is willing to include us as part of it."
Wilbur has an assistant—a woman named Jessica Haljo, based in Los Angeles, who is Native herself and has a day job, but who heard about Project 562 and simply wanted to help. She helps coordinate Wilbur's travels and speaking engagements, assembles maps marked with the tribes in each state, prepares the preliminary letters to the tribe asking, "humbly," for Wilbur to come and visit.
"She's the leading female Native American photographer in Indian Country today," Haljo says. "I'm happy to get to work with her."
The logistics are unthinkably byzantine, because tribes of people are not corporations with schedulers. What's most difficult is not the weather on any given location, but the weather within the schedule of the individuals involved, the way things constantly change. Somebody five miles away might be ready in a week, while somebody a thousand miles away is ready now. If Wilbur's movements were mapped, they would not look reasonable.
But that's just something she has learned to accept. It keeps her on her toes, and it keeps her in true collaboration with others. There are things that keep her up at night, though. One has to do with a scholar who, at a talk she was giving on the road recently, accused her of sugarcoating by making pictures of the "positive," "getting well" parts of Native life. "I'm not an optimist," Wilbur counters. "I just explained to [the scholar] that this is me, this is who I am, this is how I approach being Native. I told her my story." The scholar apologized. But Wilbur still thinks about it. She wants to be honest while being an advocate.
The second thing that keeps her up at night is money. "I go back and forth between feeling good about it and feeling really defeated," she says, "feeling overwhelmed and terrified and alone and then excited and grateful and humbled and honored. Honestly, I didn't think I would ever raise the money in the first place. I was like, 'I raised the money, now I gotta go.' I cry every time I leave someone's house. They feed me, and they are kind to me, and they show me all their cool places, and I nestle into a couch or a room. And then eventually, I gotta go, and it breaks my heart."
In 2011, Wilbur had a follow-up exhibition to her outing at SAM in 2008. This time it was a solo, of 12 pictures, of a series she titled Save the Indian and Kill the Man. It included portraits like one called City of Dreams and Mr. Runningwater, a black-and-white photograph of a cool-looking thirtysomething man in sunglasses and cowboy boots relaxing under palm trees in a plastic inflatable, like one you'd stock with a beer while floating in a pool. The photograph seemed implicitly to ask: Can you tell he's Native? How? If not, what did you expect to see instead? What's not there is as suggestive as what is. The title of the series, Save the Indian and Kill the Man, refers to a quote from the late-19th-century architect of the boarding-school system that stole Indian kids from their parents and sent them away so they wouldn't learn tribal language or customs. Its creator famously said he disagreed with outright genocide; he preferred to see Indianness killed culturally, "saving the man" while "killing the Indian" in him. Save the Indian and Kill the Man seemed to be a thought experiment that would be different for white and Native audiences. But probably each image would also be different between tribes.
It's important to remember that Wilbur doesn't know what she's going to find out there on the road. She doesn't set out with a fixed idea of what the Crow are like, or the Havasupai, or even the Lummi closer to home. You can't sit in Swinomish and know those things. Even as a member of a tribe, you can't guess in advance how to represent people, or what it's going to mean to represent people, that how someone feels about his representation is going to be associated with the size of his horse's ass. There are multiple interiors and exteriors to the project of Project 562.
And Wilbur knows how to work multiple audiences at once. Every summer, she works the family fireworks stand off Highway 20 in Swinomish. The sign on Matika and Nancy's booth reads, "Sonic Boom Babes. Unsafe and Insane." She's been doing this for a long time. She knows repeat customers by name, and she knows how many boxes of backyard-sky-decorating Acid Rain they want, what kind of sparklers. She knows the new products they haven't seen yet—rockets and missiles, poppers and snaps, parachutes, Roman candles, mines, ground spinners and flying spinners, fountains, and snakes and strobes.
For new people, she comes out from behind the booth and invites the kids to follow her behind the stands. Once she's back there, she performs like a wizard. One night last July, she set off something crazy, something a little frightful, and it made expressions of awe and terror appear on the faces of the white kids while the Native kids laughed and ran around on the tidal flats.
This watery landscape, over which the sun was setting just exactly so shortly before American Independence Day, is the most gorgeous, unexpected backdrop for the uninitiated fireworks shopper. This is the land where the Swinomish Tribe meets their customers for the business of purchasing explosive expressions of American pride. Wilbur has many friends there where she is sovereign. She has many friends in places where she submits, willingly or not, to someone else's sovereignty, too.
At Seattle Center in the spring of 2013, Wilbur gave a TED talk of her own about the people she's met so far in Project 562; it's posted online and titled "Surviving Disappearance." Afterward, the sky was watery gray, but Wilbur looked triumphant and vibrant in her leather jacket and red dress. An older white man approached to compliment her. "I loved your talk!" he told her. "Have you ever heard of Edward Curtis? You might like him."