Transcript - Episode 84: Matika Wilbur
Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa, and this is episode 84. Today’s guest is Matika Wilbur.
Hey there, everyone, welcome to the show. Today’s guest is photographer Matika Wilbur. Matika Wilbur of the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes is one of the nation’s leading photographers, based in the Pacific Northwest. She earned her BFA from Brooks Institute of Photography where she double majored in Advertising and Digital Imaging. Her current endeavor, Project 562, has brought Matika to over 400 tribal nations dispersed throughout 45 U.S. states where she has taken thousands of portraits, and collected hundreds of contemporary narratives from the breadth of Indian Country all in the pursuit of one goal: To Change The Way We See Native America.
Matika’s work really grabbed my attention from the first minute I saw it, because I’m always very interested in work about representation, and particularly work that people make about their own communities. In a lot of ways, even with everything that’s going on in the world, I actually think this is a pretty amazing time for art and literature, when I’ve gotten to see so much work made by artists I never would have gotten the chance to see when I was younger, and I’m grateful for that opportunity.
So, before we get started, a few things to mention. First, I’ve put links in the show notes to Matika’s website and to the Project 562 website, where you can see a lot of the work that we talked about in our conversation. I highly recommend pausing the show and taking some time to look through those images if you haven’t seen them already. Also, Matika has a new podcast that just launched called All My Relations, where she and Dr. Adrienne Keene explore what it means to be a Native person in 2019. I’ve listened to the first couple of episodes already and the conversations they’re having are really interesting and, I think, important so do check that out, I’ve put a link in the show notes for that as well.
If you’d like a chance to see Matika’s work in person, she has a number of exhibitions either going on now or coming up soon. Now through May 3rd, 2019, she has an exhibition open at the University of San Diego’s David W. May American Indian Gallery, that’s called “Natural Wanderment.” Also open now through June 28th, 2019, she has an exhibition at Dartmouth College in the Library Gallery. And she will also have work in the Yəhaw̓ Exhibition in Seattle, Washington, that opens on March 23rd, 2019 at King Street Station with a reception from noon to 7 PM, and runs through September 1st.
If you’d like to see one of Matika’s artist lectures she has several speaking events coming up soon. On March 20th she’ll be presenting at the University of San Diego as part of their David W. May Distinguished Lecture Series. On April 11th she’ll be speaking at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin as part of their Convocation Series. On April 12th she’ll be speaking at the Women’s Equity Summit in Minneapolis, and then she’ll be giving one of the keynote lectures at the 29th Annual Students of Color Conference in Yakima, Washington, that conference is April 18th to the 20th. I’ve put links in the show notes so do check those out.
All right, let’s get started. As always, if you’d like to join in the conversation you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPhoto to live-tweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Matika Wilbur.
Mike Sakasegawa: So I can't actually remember how I was introduced to your work, but I was really interested in talking with you because one of the things that I'm really interested in both as an artist myself and as the host of this show is work that is about identity and about representation. So your work really just as soon as I saw it, I was like, "Oh gosh, I have to talk to her." So I'm a little interested, I guess first to just hear a little bit about the origins of Project 562.
Matika Wilbur: So Project 562 is an effort to photograph all of the tribes in the United States. It is a project that I've been working on for six years now. I started the project in 2012 and I've been sort of systematically driving throughout the continental US in my RV known as the Big Girl to portray contemporary stories of Native people. And it originally started—it's my fourth major creative project. I've mostly worked as sort of like a long-form journalist or as a documentary photographer or doing more installation pieces for most of my professional career, doing these exhibitions. So I did a project called We Are One People, which was a series of portraits from 50 different tribes of original language speakers and culture bearers from Coast Salish tribes. And then that was my first major project. And then I went on and did a project called Save the Indian and Kill the Man. And then I did another project called We Emerge. Which led eventually to me doing this work. And so at the time I was teaching, I was both teaching at the tribal college on my rez and working with kids in my own tribal community. We were sort of doing this project that worked with at-risk youth to teach them photography, filmmaking, and music. And they asked me to put together a visual literacy curriculum that would represent tribes from across the country. And there just wasn't enough authentic, uplifting content. Most of the content that represents Native people is what I would describe as "poverty porn" or, you know, situated in a historic past or deeply rooted in stereotypes and misrepresentations. One only has to think of the Washington R-Words or Pocahontas or Thanksgiving to really understand the ways in which popular culture has rewritten this romantic version of American history that completely undermines what is the truth of this country's inception, and how it's treated its own first people. And so when we think about that, when we think about putting together a visual literacy curriculum to teach our own students and our own tribal communities, what do we want them to know? Of course we want them to know about the American Indian Movement. We want them to know about their leaders, you know, like Billy Frank and the activists and the impact that we've had on popular culture. You know, that Jimi Hendrix was Native or, you know, about Billy Mills or we want our people at least to know about our social structures, you know, the National Congress of the American Indian, and how we're navigating this current political, socioeconomic situation. And that curriculum is just really hard to come by, especially nationally. And we now know, we have the statistics, we know that most public schools, I think over 80% of them, represent Native people only in a pre-1900 context. So most people's encounter with Native America is in history books in third grade and in ninth grade. And what they encounter is Manifest Destiny, Lewis and Clark, and then maybe the story of Pocahontas and then that's it. And so it leads to this social disparity, which is that over 80% of third-year undergraduate students also—they believe that Native Americans are extinct. And so how does that affect us in the world, in the everyday world? Well, if these are the voters and the citizens of this country, if they believe that Native Americans are extinct, then how can we equip our citizens of our nation to fight for equality or for them to have the opportunity for nation-building or economic development when 90% of Americans view us as a one-dimensional stereotype situated in a historic past? And so my work is about that. It's about creating that curriculum and those images and those stories that we can implement into different state curricula. And, you know, creating a coffee table book and a series of exhibitions and a blog and an Instagram and a podcast, you know, a series of films, all the things that we do now as photographers to tell stories.
MS: Yeah. You know, it's interesting—well, there's a bunch of stuff that you said in there that kind of jumped out at me as really interesting. But the first thing that I was sort of thinking about is, so you're describing both how there's sort of a lack of authentic and positive uplift—the word you used was "uplifting"—representation of Native people, for a curriculum that as you described being for your own community, right? But then also talking about how so much of the, I guess, broader, white American understanding of Native people is so, as you say, one-dimensional and situated in a historic past, not representing—well, neither representing that historical past correctly and accurately nor representing the real lived experiences of Native people now. And, you know, one of the things that I'm always so interested in with creative work, with art, is what the art does, what its function is. And I see both of those two functions as being interesting, how they interact with each other. You know, like on the one hand being something for your own community and then something being sort of more outward-facing towards everyone else. And I was sort of wondering how that works for you.
MW: What do you mean? How what works for me?
MS: I guess like how you conceive of the project. You know, like, is one of those aspects more important to you than the other or are they equally important? Do you see them as separate or something that's more synergistic, something that's interconnecting and working together? That kind of thing.
MW: I guess I don't really understand what you're asking because I don't—I'm not a person that is conceptualizing work outside of my own space, if that makes sense.
MW: Like if I had to develop a project, for instance, about what was happening with underground punk kids in Spain or something or what's happening right now in Queens with transgender Latinas, you know, like that would be a difficult story for me to approach because I'm not from Queens and because I don't know anybody there. Or because I'm not from Spain, it's not in my community, I'm not drawing upon my own personal experiences. And so the work that I do is always deeply rooted to who I am as an individual. You know, I'm from the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes, I'm a Snohomish woman, my upbringing deeply has impacted my purpose and my commitment to my people. And so I see my purpose is rooted in this idea of service, that I'm meant to give back to my tribal community and to the Creator, to the land that I come from, and to be a good steward of all those things. And so when it comes to developing a project, since I'm a photographer and because I'm an educator, you know, they just sort of naturally came together over many years of developing skills. But I don't know that one can separate themselves from the work that they're doing, and anyway I certainly can't. You know, it takes too much time and energy and it's such a project of love. It's such an act of service for me to have gone on the road, and to have dedicated my entire life to this. So I don't know how to really answer the question in a way that maybe... I don't know if I don't understand...
MS: Uh, I probably didn't ask it very well. But if I sort of turn this around on myself, right? So, I'm a Japanese American man, right? And when I think about work that is by Asian American artists or writers, that is about the Asian American experience, right, that's not something for me that I ever got to experience when I was young. So like, I'm going to be 40 this year, so I'm not super old, but I'm also not that young. When I was a kid, I have no memory of ever getting to read stories about Asian people by Asian people, right? And so the first time I ever got to experience that was in my mid-thirties. And it was an experience that really... It was kind of life-changing for me, right? So that was one thing, that experience of getting to see an experience that I recognized, represented in an authentic way, was a very powerful experience for me. On the other hand, I also will then often take those books or photographs or art or whatever that's made by these Asian American artists and writers, and give them to white people, right? And say, "I would like for you to experience this thing, this art." And I feel that sharing that—or not even just with white people but with other non-Asian people, right? Like with my black friends or my Latinx friends or whoever, who haven't had the same life experience as me. And I feel that there is a way in which that also... Even though part of that experience was the personal one for me of getting to have that experience of seeing myself represented in art that I never had before, but also turning around then and then sharing that experience with someone who doesn't recognize that life experience also is a thing that the work does and a service in a different way I guess. And I guess I was just—I was wondering if those are things for you as well with your work, you know, those two different aspects of audience, I guess. Does that make sense?
MW: Yeah. I mean, I guess any project we work on, we have to ask ourself who our demographic is and who we're making the work for and how to put... I've heard a lot of creative professionals say that, you know, they make the work because they have to, because if they didn't, they just couldn't stand themselves. You know, like they paint because there's no other option but to paint, or they make music because music is who they are. It's their lives. I've gone through different iterations of this, of ways that I've crafted this message, and I've crafted the message differently for different audiences and for different platforms. I've thought extensively about representation and the dangers of representing Indians in leathers and feathers or in traditional regalia, for instance. Because when... You know, like if I take a picture of a Native person in Los Angeles who's Tongva and they're just, you know, in downtown LA... You know, it doesn't even look like LA if it doesn't look like Hollywood, if it doesn't look like stereotypical Los Angeles. But, you know, this is their traditional grounds and they're just wearing everyday clothes. And then somebody says, "That doesn't look like an Indian. And LA is not a Native place." However, if I took a picture of a woman in downtown LA, like on 3rd and Main in front of Skid Row and she's in her jingle dress and I backlight it and make it very high-impact, high-contrast image, everybody loves the image. They're like "Oh, there's still Indians in LA." Because people... And that image will get more likes than the image of the other person in regular clothing, it'll get more attention and will be published more in magazines, because it tickles people's fancy. There's something romantic about a Native person in leather and feathers, and jingles and pretty colors and lipstick and braids. It's how we imagine Native Americans. So when we push back against that, as content creators we definitely can feel the lack of response. And so, you know, I've done it both ways. I've also changed my approach. Given that I have a commercial background, I like to create and stage images the way that I see fit. You know, like I want to do location scouting, I want to choose my model, I want hair and makeup, I want art boards. And, you know, I want to work with an art director and a creative director, and I want a production team with a production assistant and tech, and a $40,000 budget. [laughs] You know, that's how I like to make images. But that's not how this... Documentary work doesn't work like that. And a project that's dedicated to identity and uncovering identities, the most important thing that a photographer or filmmaker can do is give the agency back to the individual that they're choosing to represent. So the people that I photograph, I ask them how would they like to be photographed. You know, and sometimes people have these ideas like, "Oh yeah, I want to go down by the water and I want to stand with my gas mask on, and I want to wear my headdress and I want to wear mud boots, and I want to be in where the oil spill was, and I want to do this image about this lack of clean water on my rez." And I say "Dope, let's do it." You know? And then other times, you know, aunties, who are like... I'm specifically thinking of this one auntie who, she's an incredible beader and she wins at every powwow she goes to because she has the most beautiful regalia. And everyone's like, "Yeah, you gotta go photograph Jenny. She had the most beautiful traditional dresses." So when it was time to take her photo, I asked her where she would like to have her photo taken, what she'd like to wear. She said, "Oh, I just want to wear this. Let's just do it on my porch." And here we are in Big Sky Country and the sun is setting, there's these epic grasses, and, you know, you could really get this feeling for Montana and Glacier National Park, and you could have this wild, expansive image of, you know, this beautiful grandma with white hair and this beautiful buckskin dress. But no, we took a picture on their front porch and tee shirt. This documentary work has been about asking people how they want to be represented and it's in that way that I show the photos. And I share the stories with people and I let the people that I photograph edit them and edit their stories before I share them because they belong to them. So I guess, you know, when I'm crafting the narrative and I'm thinking about who the audience is, you know, when I give a talk at... Like when I've given talks in places like Virginia or Arkansas, it's been a very different lecture than Berkeley, or a very different lecture than what I have at a public library in Tucson, Arizona. If it's 80-year-old white folks there's a different way to craft the message than 19-year-old kids that ask you your pronouns.
MW: So, you know, you also just have to realize that when we put a little honey on it, it goes down a little sweeter, and I believe in doing that for people. And I also, I've really gone through different stages. You know, sometimes I get super angry at white folks about what they're doing. You know, like there's like this crazy whitelashing happening in this country right now that is undeniable. Look at what just happened with the Covington case. You know, look what just happened over Martin Luther King weekend. Look at what President Trump is mocking Indians. Mocking Lakota/Nakota/Dakota communities and what happened at Wounded Knee, and mocking Elizabeth Warren and calling her Pocahontas. I mean the police brutality towards Native people and transgender Native people, the violence towards transgender Native people and our women, you know, that experience sexual assault and domestic violence in this country. The numbers are, the disparities are overwhelmingly heart-wrenching and disgusting. And so it is undeniable that we are having tension over race, especially towards Native people, and the equality is measurable. Inequality, rather, is measurable. Sometimes I see my role is pushing back against those things and sometimes I'll... You know, like when Standing Rock was happening, I was there on the front lines with my camera and my fists in the air. It was just, I just couldn't not go. But other times, you know, like I felt like I'm not an activist, you know, I have to remember what my purpose is. I'm a photographer and I'm a storyteller and I have to remain neutral enough to be able to tell stories in a good way.
MS: I mean I think it's—
MW: So I go—
MS: I'm sorry.
MW: Yeah, go ahead.
MS: No, I was just—this thing you were saying about not being an activist. I think that's an interesting statement because it seems like there is, to me, an activist aspect to your work. I mean certainly that in terms of changing the narrative about Native people in this country, to me that's a very activist concept. And when I look also at the writing that you do, especially for the Project 562 blog, a lot of the people, maybe almost all of the people that you are writing about are activists themselves, whose work then you're now spotlighting and bringing to a wider audience. And that also to me seems like both an act of service and a form of activism. So yeah, I mean to me that seems like it really is in there. No?
MW: Yeah. I mean, I got really caught up in the movement at Standing Rock, as we all should have. You know, what was happening there... You know, 10,000 Native people camped out in a field praying for water is not a national crisis that should send in the National Guard. It shouldn't be illegal. And when I saw my relatives and friends being bit by dogs, when I saw us being sprayed by water cannons in freezing temperatures, when I saw that lady lose her arm, you know, I just couldn't... I'd never seen civil disobedience, if you will, which is not what I would call it, but I wasn't alive during the Civil Rights Movement, I'd never seen people being attacked by dogs before. It was impossible to not become actively engaged in that scenario as a storyteller because I do think we have this responsibility to tell stories that are going to help our people.
MW: And I don't see that necessarily as activism. I see that as good citizenry. Just being a good relative. And my job is to be a good relative to my family, to my friends, to my community, and to humanity. And so, you know, I'm not an activist in the sense that I think of activists as community organizers and folks that are writing the legislation and getting it passed, and doing it over and over again, and knocking on doors and canvassing and organizing movements, and so I... I certainly want to do those things, but my job—you know, I have to be a photographer. I have to be a storyteller. And so I guess in some ways I contribute to the movement in the ways that I can, because standing by idly and not getting involved and not telling stories about these inequalities, it's just as bad as doing it ourselves. I think we have to tell stories that create a better world for our children. It's our job.
MS: Yeah, absolutely. Why don't we take a quick little break and then we'll come back and do the second segment?
Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which can be anything that you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?
Matika Wilbur: Well, right now, I'm really interested in encouraging the collective consciousness to acknowledge their own indigenous communities and find ways to develop a land-based identity and a relationship with the land that they're occupying. All over Turtle Island there's an indigenous history, story, and people. And so whether you're in Minnesota with Anishinaabe folks, or down in Florida with the Miccosukees, or in California with over 110 tribes here, there is an indigenous language, history, and narrative that needs to be told in your space. And so in which ways have you become an active ally to the indigenous community whose land you're illegally occupying? That's the question.
MW: And so how do we develop that relationship? That's what a lot of people ask me when they come to my lectures or when I interface with people, they ask me, "What's next? What can I do?" And the thing that I've been thinking about recently is that this study was just done with Reclaiming Native Truth. And they found that most Americans do think that we're extinct and that most textbooks teach about us in an inaccurate way and in a pre-1900 context. But they also found that over 78% of the people that were polled said that they would like to know more about their indigenous relatives and they'd like to know more, they just don't know how. And that's to me really uplifting, because in some ways it's exhausting because it's not necessarily my problem to fix this broken system that they created. But since I have volunteered myself to share all of this knowledge about Indian country, I think maybe that's a good place to start, a great place to have this conversation.
MS: Yeah. You know, thinking about what you were saying just a minute ago about interfacing with an indigenous understanding of your area, that kind of thing, and then thinking too about what we were just talking about with activism... I've been pretty involved with the activist community here in San Diego for the past couple of years. And one thing I've noticed is—and I've noticed this both here and in the more nationwide coverage—I feel like a lot of people will pay a certain amount of lip service to the idea that... For example, almost every time we have a big rally here in San Diego—you know, the Women's March or some other big rally against something bad that the government has just done—there will be some kind of nod that people will make towards a certain rhetoric about, you know, "Let's keep in mind that this is indigenous land," and that this... You know, here the tribe is the Kumeyaay nation. And so people will talk about how this is Kumeyaay land, and that we should be mindful of how this land was stolen. And on the one hand that feels very... You know, having this big platform used to talk about that issue openly, it feels like good work to me. But at the same time, I'm always kind of wondering, is that all it's going to be, is we're going to make like four sentences at a big rally and then move on and not talk about it anymore. Do you know what I mean?
MW: Yeah. I mean, how does it translate into actual policy—
MS: Yeah. Yeah.
MW: —is good question.
MS: Yeah. And this thing that you were saying about people wanting to know more, but not knowing how, I feel like even people who are notionally out there being activists, being active, are not necessarily educated enough to do more than just have a couple of talking points. So this thing about making that available for people to engage with seems like a really important idea to me. I don't know.
MW: Well, I think that there's ways that people can indigenize their space. One is by developing active relationships with indigenous people. We see ourselves in many places across the country as having a land-based identity, right? So like, for instance, my people were the People of the Tide—the Swinomish People means "the people of the tide." But in other communities were the People of the Tall Pine Trees, People of the Clear Blue Saltwater, et cetera. And so, much of our upbringing, our indigenous pedagogies, our ways of knowing and developing our young ones is to help them develop a relationship with land. So becoming a person of the tide means that we take our children out from a very young age and teach them about how to harvest from the tide. So when we develop a relationship with our food and a relationship with the land, we have a less transactional experience with this place that's giving us life. Right now it's very transactional. We go to the grocery store, we eat at QFC, we—maybe we go to Whole Foods, but most of us have extreme plant blindness. Like if we didn't have those grocery stores, do we even know what natural indigenous foods live around us that we could harvest and eat? You know, can you create a basket from the plants around you? Could you create a bowl? Do you know what the indigenous plants are? Do you plant them in your garden? Most people don't have the luxury of having enough space to plant a garden, but most people can grow indigenous food on their windowsill. You know, and with the homogenization of the world's seeds, with Monsanto—Monsanto-Bayer, now—owning over 80% of the world's seeds, we are all at great risk of, you know, if blight or drought or some sort of weird new sickness comes into our plants. And considering that, you know, almost all of the corn in this country and all of the wheat is being grown by Monsanto, what happens in the event that there's some sort of little bug that comes and eats all of that? What are we all going to eat? So we desperately need people to recultivate a relationship with the land. Even at the turn of the century there was over 100,000 people that grew indigenous seeds and now it just doesn't happen anymore. And so given that we've developed this entire nation that can't probably identify the tides of their own region, or know the moon cycle, or know the traditional plants our medicines that are around them. How can those people be truly fostering a relationship of stewardship of the land that they're living on? And so the people that were here before us, that had a relationship with these places—for instance in your community, the Kumeyaay—they have long-standing, deep relationship with the land that even though they've gone through a period of colonization, some of those belief systems, those ways of knowing and having relationships with those plants and medicines, those are still there and we can learn from those things. It's also in the language and in the creation story of the places that we are at. And so, you know, like the Kumeyaay creation stories are the people are emerging from the rocks in your place. There's great lessons that could be learned from those creation stories. And unfortunately, most of us, we only learn the Judeo-Christian creation story, which then goes on to shape this entire world that we live in. It's not surprising that we live in this patriarchal society. I mean, just look at how in most people's view of this country, they think that this world was created by a man. And that woman was created by coming out of that man's rib bone and she was this original sinner. And women are still viewed that way. You know, like women still don't have equality in the workplace. And so part of changing our worldview has to do with our first inception of creation story. So those are really powerful, tiny ways. You know, you just pick one plant that's indigenous to a place and build a relationship with that plant. Learn the indigenous creation story in the place that you're occupying. Learn how to give thanks, you know, and instead of celebrating false holidays like Thanksgiving, actually go out, take your children outside, go outside, give thanks to the land, make an offering, teach them how to be grateful for the land that's giving them life. You know, those are small things that we could do that could really make great change. If we wanted to be even more impactful, we could learn the indigenous language of the place that we're occupying. You know, there's so many indigenous languages that are at risk right now of becoming sleeping or extinct. You know, our languages are really at risk. You know, when we went through that whole boarding school era where we were forced to speak English, in the assimilation period, you know, many people didn't get to learn their indigenous language. And so, simple ways that we can preserve indigenous languages is just taking out our iPhone and having conversations with people that speak an indigenous language. It's important.
MS: It is.
MW: And so, you know, like in Kumeyaay, how do you say "hello"? How do you say "goodbye"? How come there's no street signs, or, you know, you start looking around you, just in your square block, does my street reflect a Kumeyaay identity? Is there any public art? How do we shape that? And those are small changes, but when a lot of us do it, it makes a really big difference.
MS: Hmm. Yeah. So there's one last question that I ike to ask everyone before we end and the that is if there is a piece of art or literature or creativity in some form that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.
MW: Yeah, I recently saw, Roma. I saw it at this great theater in Monterrey, and I was so excited about it because it was... Well, because it's one of the first indigenous women besides Whale Rider that had an indigenous person as the star character. Yalitza [Aparicio] has been nominated to receive an Oscar for her performance in Roma. And so I just like, I watched it, I cried a bunch and it was really powerful, but I was just really excited that that happened. I would encourage people to see that. It's on Netflix, too, so everybody can see it. Did you see it?
MS: Not yet. It's on my list to see, for exactly that reason, it's... I mean, everybody's been talking about how great it is. So, yeah, I'm going to get to it as soon as I can.
MW: Yeah, you should. It's great.
MS: Well, so thank you so much for talking with me. I had a really good time, so thanks for giving me your time.
MW: Yeah, thanks for having me. I look forward to seeing how this turns out. If people want to learn more about the work that I'm doing, I have a blog, it's project562.com. And I'm on Instagram, that's where I'm most current. I'm not much of a tweeter, but I'm @project_562 on Instagram. And we have a new podcast coming out next week, so I hope people will check that out.
OK, so once again, Matika’s new podcast is called All My Relations and it is available everywhere podcasts can be found, do check that out. And be sure to check the show notes for links to those exhibitions and events I mentioned at the top of the show.
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