A Native American photographer is taking powerful portraits of members of every tribe across the US

·4 min read
A Native American photographer is taking powerful portraits of members of every tribe across the US
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Matika Wilbur takes intimate portraits of Native people across America.Matika Wilbur
  • Matika Wilbur is photographing members of every federally recognized Native American tribe.

  • She asks people about themselves and their identies and records their answers for an archive.

  • She calls the series Project 562 after the over 562 federally recognized tribes in the US.

Photographer Matika Wilbur is on a mission to photograph members of every federally recognized Native tribe in North America.

A self portrait of Matika Wilbur. A woman stands next to a van on the edge of a cliff.
Matika Wilbur.Matika Wilbur

Wilbur herself is Swinomish and Tulalip. She began Project 562 after her grandmother appeared to her in a dream and told her to leave an assignment in South America and photograph her own people.

She's driven hundreds of thousands of miles and photographed members of over 400 tribes for Project 562.

A group of Native American people photographed by Matika Wilbur.
The Walkers on their "Journey for Existence."Matika Wilbur

When Wilbur began her project in 2012, there were 562 federally recognized Native American tribes. Now, there are 574.

The project has grown from a photo series to a documentary project to a full-blown archive of Native people, their communities, and their stories.

Chief Bill James, Lummi Nation. A man poses for a portrait in front of a canoe and water.
Chief Bill James, Lummi Nation.Matika Wilbur

"We're always redrafting the language to describe this project," Wilbur told Insider in 2016.

Wilbur photographs her subjects on black-and-white film using a method called the Zone System.

A young member of Navajo Nation photographed by Matika Wilbur.
Bahazhoni Tso, Navajo Nation.Matika Wilbur

The Zone System creates more dynamic range in the images.

She's drawn to peer portraiture with simple landscape backdrops.

A Native woman photographed by Matika Wilbur. She looks up at the sky with her hands extended at her sides.
Dr. Mary Evelyn Belgarde, Pueblo of Isleta and Ohkay Owingeh.Matika Wilbur

"I figured that that was sort of irresponsible when I started this project, to travel all over the country and not show the landscape," Wilbur said.

She lets her subjects choose where and how they'd like to be photographed, providing them with agency over the way they'll be represented.

A Native American man in a cowboy hat and red bandana poses for a portrait.
Leon Grant, Omaha.Matika Wilbur

"Sometimes I'll be in the Grand Canyon and I'd rather take somebody's picture at Havasupai Falls because it's magnificent and there's this incredible blue-green water coming out of the ground ... and they want to be photographed on their front porch because they love where they live," she said. "I'll do what they want to do because people should be represented in a way that is important to them, especially in Indian Country."

"We've been photographed so many times by non-Indians and we've had our stories told so many times by people outside our community, and they get the story wrong," Wilbur said.

Tulalip tribe members Darkfeather, Bibiana, and Eckos Ancheta pose for a portrait.
Darkfeather, Bibiana, and Eckos Ancheta from the Tulalip tribe.Matika Wilbur

In the above portrait, Wilbur photographed three members of the Tulalip tribe: Darkfeather, Bibiana, and Eckos Ancheta.

"We aim to correct that narrative through honest individual agency and storytelling," she said.

A Native American from the Dine' tribe woman poses for a portrait.
Jaclyn Roessel, Dine' (Navajo Nation).Matika Wilbur

Dine' (Navajo Nation) member Jaclyn Roessel posed for one of Wilbur's portraits.

Wilbur asks them questions about themselves and their lives as she takes their picture.

Northern Cheyenne tribe members, a young woman and her grandmother, pose for a portrait.
Jennie Parker and granddaughter Sharlyce, Northern Cheyenne.Matika Wilbur

Their conversations touch on family, love, heartbreak, moments that shaped them, and their hopes for the future.

She also asks about their Native American identities.

Rupert Steele of the Goshute tribe poses in a headdress.
Rupert Steele, Goshute.Matika Wilbur

"I find that people have really interesting things to say when you ask them what it means to be whatever their tribe is, and then when you ask them what it means to be an 'Indian,'" she said. "I'm fascinated by that."

Sometimes her subjects wear traditional Native clothing, while others wear their everyday outfits.

Ailee Fregoso of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe poses in her traditional dress.
Ailee Fregoso, Cheyenne River Sioux.Matika Wilbur

Ailee Fregoso of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe showed off her colorful fringed shawl.

Project 562 is still ongoing.

Rosebud Quintana of the Northern Ute and Dine tribes poses for a portrait.
Rosebud Quintana, Northern Ute and Dine.Matika Wilbur

You can follow her work on Project 562's Instagram and website.

What began as a photo series has become an archive rich with history, culture, language, and resilience.

Kumu Ka'eo Izon of the Kanaka Maoli tribe poses for a portrait.
Kumu Ka'eo Izon, Kanaka Maoli.Matika Wilbur

Wilbur also co-hosts the podcast All My Relations, in which she, Desi Small-Rodriguez, and Adrienne Keene discuss their relationships to land, ancestors, and other Native peoples.

"I feel so blessed to know so many wonderful people," Wilbur said.

A Native American woman laughs while holding her baby.
Myra Masiel Zamora, Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians.Matika Wilbur

"I didn't know that strangers can become family relatively quickly," she said. "It's such a whirlwind of a journey."

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