Matika Wilbur has spent the past four years capturing with her camera the richness and complexity of Native American lives.
This week, Wilbur is sharing her art and her perspective with students at South Puget Sound Community College, leading them in making a mural to be unveiled Friday (Feb. 24). Photos from her still-in-progress “Project 562: Indigenous Land” are on display through Friday at the college gallery.
Wilbur, of the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes, aims to take photos of and collect oral narratives from members of all of the federally recognized tribes. There were 562 when she began the project in December 2012 and there are 566 today. So far, she’s visited about 400.
“In the last four years, I’ve spent over 300 days a year on the road,” she said in a phone interview Monday from her Seattle office. Before taking on “Project 562,” she taught photography and visual literacy at Tulalip Heritage High School on the Tulalip Tribes of Washington land, north of Seattle.
Big as the project is, though, Wilbur’s mission is even bigger. She wants to change how Native Americans are seen and how they see themselves.
“You can easily find positive media and authentic representations of most ethnic groups in the country,” she said. “Go to Google and Google African American and see what sort of image pops up or Google Asian American or Latino American or Hispanic … and then Google Native American. The gap is so visible.
“Our young people don’t get to see themselves,” she added. “Then people wonder why we have the highest rate of suicide in the country or the highest rates of drug addiction or dropout rates.”
Wilbur aims to educate the broader community about the indigenous history of the land on which they live.
“Most people don’t actually know the real history of the place where they live,” she said.
That history is part of what she’s been teaching South Puget Sound Community College students this week.
The gallery committee and college administration are excited to have Wilbur on campus, said gallery administrator Nathan Barnes.
Over the past few years, Wilbur has given more than 200 lectures. But her visit to Olympia is the beginning of a new and deeper approach to sharing her work.
She is teaching the students an indigenous approach to photography and storytelling.
“My role as a journalist or a photographer or a filmmaker is to help my community,” she said. “When we approach a new subject, we ask the subject, ‘How can I be useful to you? What sort of story would you like to tell? What pictures would you like me to take?’ ”
The students are meeting with Nisqually Indian Tribe elders to learn about the history of the land on which the college was built. They are taking photographs. And they are deciding how best to depict the story in the mural scheduled to be installed, weather permitting, on the front of the Student Union Building.
The mural, which might be as big as 60 feet high and 40 feet wide, will be made of paper and hung with wheat paste.
Although the mural will disappear with time and weather, Wilbur aims to have a lasting impact on the state of race relations in America. She’ll visit several more colleges this year to work with students and ultimately hopes to see the nation peppered with murals honoring indigenous history.
Meanwhile, she’s keeping things in perspective.
“I think the students will learn a lot,” she said Monday. Then she laughed. “If nothing else, they’ll learn how to make enormous murals, so they can go out and make public art.”
What: A visiting artist at South Puget Sound Community College, Wilbur has spent years photographing members of federally-recognized Native American tribes.
When: Gallery open 1-8 p.m. Friday (Feb. 24); reception and celebration of the student-created mural 6-8 p.m.
Where: The Gallery at South Puget Sound Community College, 2011 Mottman Road SW, Olympia.
Also: The public is invited to come by any time campus is open to view the mural, to be installed Friday on the front of the Student Union Building.