Preserving Indian Culture at Eastern

Matika_WilburWritten by Jordan Corey

According to the National Congress of American Indians, there are 562 federally recognized Indian tribes, bands, nations, pueblos, rancherias, communities and Native villages in the United States. Matika Wilbur – member of the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes of Washington – founded her photography mission “Project 562” to give each one of these groups honest representation. On Nov. 1, Wilbur came to Eastern Connecticut State University to tell their stories to help the University celebrate National Native American Heritage Month.

Upon entering the Student Center Theatre, attendees were met with a projected photo of a young Native American girl kneeling next to a tree, depicted in color against a black and white background. The girl is Bahazhoni Tso, a Navajo of New Mexico. She is pictured in front of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, AZ – part of the Navajo people’s four sacred mountains. Tso sat with her family in peaceful protest to protect the mountain range from the city of Flagstaff, which wanted to use reclaimed water to create man-made snow for a ski resort there.

Wilbur began her presentation with a lively energy, a booming laugh and an evident passion for her culture. “I come from the people of the tide,” she explained, incorporating Native language into the opening. During her explanation of the Tulalip Salmon Ceremony, Wilbur introduced the crowd to the word “tigwicid,” a means of expressing thanks. For the past five years, this pride in heritage has guided Wilbur all over America in her RV – nicknamed “Big Girl” – and so far, she has documented about 450 of the 562 federally recognized Indigenous groups.

Project 562 aims to not only replace outdated, stereotyped representations that are found about Indigenous people in online searches, but to provide an accurate visualization of Native Americans overall in order to combat the negative viewpoints upheld by society. Part of what drove Wilbur to this pursuit was her experience as a teacher at Tulalip Heritage High School, where a number of her students died of unnatural causes, such as suicide, drug use and homicide. “I’d have students in class with me, and the next day, we’d be putting them in the ground.”

She knew the Tulalip students struggled with various issues centered on the misrepresentation of Native Americans, but had nothing to show them how to counteract it. Nevertheless, Wilbur felt obligated to do something. Refusing to continue the promotion of historically inaccurate narratives, she created Project 562 to spotlight the successes and depth of Native people. Not only does Wilbur take their photos, but she asks her subjects a series of questions to gain insight on who they are. One person featured during her presentation was John Trudell, a Santee Dakota poet, musician, actor, author and activist.

“The only thing that the American Indian has ever known is struggle,” Trudell told Wilbur when she met him in San Francisco. He discussed the direction he would like to see Native Americans move toward, and his own role in that progression. In addition to Trudell, Wilbur highlighted a Hawaiian language teacher who talked to her about incorporating Indigenous linguistic structures into Standard English to create a sense of community, and a farmer she called “Uncle John,” who discussed the problem of sunscreen-ridden water in regards to growing kalo. Other photographs included college professors, ranchers and artisans.

Wilbur touched on the connection between identity and land for Native people, playing a Project 562 video of the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The video depicted peaceful protestors being sprayed with mace and attacked by dogs. “What we saw at Standing Rock,” she stated, “was an incredible violation of human rights without much consequence.”

The photographer argued that the current political climate surrounding Native Americans must be combatted in more ways than one, from creating welcoming spaces in society to further incorporating real representations, like those of Project 562, into educational environments. Wilbur concluded with a story of the Nisqually tribe and the fight to maintain their canoe-centric traditions, victorious in their efforts despite governmental backlash. “There can be great loss, but there can also be great resurrection,” she said.