Last Updated on May 4, 2023
A larger-than-life image of Sheldon Raymore, a Cheyenne River Sioux, greets me as I enter Santa Monica College’s Barrett Gallery. With eyes closed and face upturned toward the sun, Raymore was glorious in bright primary-colored ribbons and beads. The inclusion of his shadow added more dimension to the photo. His figure transported me to one of the many performances of Native Americans that I have been fortunate to witness since moving to Scottsdale.
Living in Arizona, I thought I had learned much about Native tribes. However, Project 562 showed me how much more I have to learn about the extensive and complex communities that are struggling, and in most cases, succeeding, to preserve and advance their cultures.
Photographer Matika Wilbur (Swinomish and Tulalip) set off in 2012 to visit all the 562 federally recognized tribes within the United States. She found that number fluid, but it demonstrates the vastness of unique Indigenous communities spread across Turtle Island, the Native American name for the North American continent.
Wilbur’s goal was bringing Indigenous people and culture beyond stereotypical images embedded in art and Popular culture. She mainly traveled in her RV, but also utilized horses, trains, boats, planes, and her own feet to reach these communities.
Santa Monica College “Project 562” Exhibition
On a visit to California in early 2023, I visited Barrett Gallery for an exhibition of Wilbur’s Project 562: Changing the Way We See Native America which presents a selection of her images and stories gathered along the way to trying to photograph all 562 federally recognized Native communities in what is now America. She didn’t quite make. Some of the photos come from intertribal events.
I roamed the presentation alone, accompanied only by the sounds of video and audio works coming from the far corner of the room. The walls held large format, vibrant and moving photos of the Indigenous people Wilbur visited.
She depicted them as they wanted to be seen, in traditional dress or modern clothes, participating in ceremonies or living their everyday lives. The subjects appeared mostly happy and proud.
Contrasting Photography Styles
Many well-known photographs of Native Americans, such as those by Edward Curtis in the early 1900s, froze their subjects in time. The people in Wilbur’s shots, however, are alive and moving through life, working toward preserving their cultures and languages.
Both addressed the difficulties Indigenous people faced, but Curtis strove to show how the American government and people dehumanized them and stole their land. The people, however, were passive elements in Curtis’ works.
Matika Wilbur, on the other hand, presents Indigenous people with agency, active participants in their continuing survival.
Her photographic technique features vibrancy and depth; I was so wrapped up in the images and personal stories I didn’t think about all the work that went into producing photos.
Every turn revealed a new favorite, another engrossing story to accompany the picture.
Younger people often posed in traditional regalia.
Teexeeshe’ Jones-Scott stared me down from her wall-sized photo, generations’-old eagle feathers projecting from her basket cap grazing the ceiling, her crossed arms barely clearing the floor. She was gorgeous in Flower Dance regalia which includes abalone earrings, beaded hair ties, beaver hair wraps, clam shell necklaces, and a maple bark skirt.
Leon Grant stood straight and tall in blue jeans and a large black cowboy hat with rope in hand and horses in the background. He grew up on his family’s ranch in Nebraska and became a champion bronco rider. Grant decided he wanted an education and, in 1947, walked 41 days to reach Phoenix.
There, he found only discrimination. But he remained, persevered and established the Phoenix Indian Center which stills provides needed services to Native people today.
Photos Tell a Story
On a far corner of the gallery, 57 photographs hang in three rows portraying Indigenous people of all ages from around the country. A soundtrack played with each of them relating part of their story. I sat on the bench in front of them trying to identify which person was speaking – matching the face with the story.
The photos depicted artists, musicians, dancers, and those who were perpetuating their native language. Many of these storytellers demonstrate a commitment to preserving their ancestral lands and traditional practices.
The subjects of the photos included silhouettes of a comedy troupe of four men from Minnesota and Oklahoma called the “1491s.”
The photos also included a line of seven women in bright traditional dress who make up the Legacy Leaders of the Spirit Aligned Leadership Program.
Strong Indigenous Women
Elsa Armstrong, a member of Red Cliff Band Ojibwe wearing a traditional purple and green dress stood with fist raised in front of a white Dartmouth College building where she was a student. She was quoted as saying, “I get my strength from my language. My friends. My family…and from other Indigenous women being their badass selves.”
Many Indigenous people Wilbur photographed relayed how their work connects them with their ancestors and helps them understand where they fit in the world.
Fawn Douglas, a Las Vegas Paiute, heads the Nuwu Art + Activism Studio and shares her own painting, weaving, sculpture, and performance art. She hopes her artistry will keep her close to her culture while translating their oral traditions to her viewers.
Ruth Demmert smiled like a cool grandmother in modern sunglasses while draped in an intricate red cape and headdress, holding a Tlingit drum. She grew up watching her relative lead the Keex Kwanzaa dance group in Kake, Alaska.
In their tradition, only men could lead the group. When they couldn’t find a young man to learn the songs and dances, Demmert accepted the challenge. After teaching almost half of her village the songs, in 1990, they attended Celebration in Southeast Alaska which included more than 2,000 dancers. She spoke about how she enjoyed seeing the children learning the culture and was comforted by the knowledge that it would survive through them.
The Barrett Gallery exhibition on view through May 15, 2023, only included a small percentage of Wilbur’s work and left me wanting to see and learn more. Hopefully, this important opus will be shown in other galleries around the country to spread the art and culture of Indigenous people and change the way we see Native Americans. Wilbur’s photos with accompanying narratives are now available for all to see in the Project 562 book which is a masterpiece well worth exploring.