This piece originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s editorial hub and is written by Matika Wilbur.
In 2012, I sold everything in my Seattle apartment and packed my camera, film, and boots into my RV for an epic adventure into Native America. I was born to the Swinomish and Tulalip people, and I am now in the third year of an artistic project to collect oral narratives and photograph the 562+ federally-recognized tribes in the United States. The purpose? Educate the nation and shift the collective consciousness about our indigenous communities. Because how can we be seen as modern, successful people if we’re continually represented as the leathered and feathered vanishing race?
To date, I have visited more than 250 tribes in 47 states, taking nearly 800 portraits and collecting each sitter’s oral history. I have been welcomed into these tribal communities, sitting with and photographing people in their homes, schools, and settings of extraordinary natural beauty. I’ve so far had the opportunity to share my journey with audiences at museums, universities, conferences, and galleries across the United States. I strive to share stories and photographs of contemporary indigenous people as the positive role models I know them to be.
The most amazing part of the journey has been the generosity, kindness, and knowledge that Native people have offered me. I have met activists, educators, culture-bearers, artists, and students. The topics of their stories vary – from tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and wellness to recovery from historical trauma, decolonization of the mind, and revitalization of culture. They have transformed and inspired me, and I want to do my part to share their stories. Here are just a few of them, including several I recently shared as part of a “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Voices of Native American Women” exhibition at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute.
Dr. Adrienne Keene is a professor of Native American studies at Brown University, where her research focuses largely on college access for Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian peoples. She has worked closely with the nonprofit College Horizons for more than a decade, working to improve educational outcomes for Native students. She is also known as an international voice on contemporary indigenous issues via her blog, Native Appropriations, which addresses stereotypes and misrepresentations of Native people.
Dr. Mary Evelyn Belgarde is a retired professor of Indian education from the University of New Mexico. She is well-versed in the history of governmentally-engineered education systems of assimilation. Passionate about training culturally competent teachers to work within indigenous communities, she has helped establish charter schools to create effective models of Native American education. During our conversation, she said, “When are we going to stop asking our children to choose between cultural education and Western education? I think we are ready to stop the assimilation process. The time to change is now.”
Born in Washington, D.C., where her mother was working for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Juanita Toledo moved back to her Native community, where she works as her tribe’s community wellness advocate. “Even though I’m mixed – I’m half Indigenous and half African American – I tend to identify more with the indigenous side,” she said. “My mother wanted my brother and me to know the language and the culture. It’s become a big part of who I am.”
A scholar pursuing dual PhDs in sociology, Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear grew up on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, where she returned after completing her undergraduate and graduate studies at Stanford University. “They call us the fighting Cheyenne because we fought for everything we have here today,” she explained of her Montana-based tribe. “I’ve grown up knowing that we’re here because 300 of our people made it back from Oklahoma after escaping from a [governmental] Indian Territory they were forced into. Home was thousands of miles away, it was the middle of winter, and they were chased by cavalry the entire way. But two of our chiefs, Dull Knife and Little Wolf, decided to make a run for it. This amazing tale of survival demonstrates the strength of the Cheyenne people. Knowing that our ancestors died for us to be here shapes your entire life.”
“This picture was taken at my camp during Crow Fair, which is a time to be together with your family and remember the way things used to be,” said JoRee Vi LaFrance. “That was the year I was Miss Crow Nation. You have a strong duty to represent your tribe well.” Now, she is representing her tribe well as a student at Dartmouth College, where she is double-majoring in Earth Science and Native American Studies. “It was a hard transition emotionally, academically, and spiritually because I came from home where I was surrounded by family to being here alone,” she said. “I had to make new friends, learn to manage my time, and do the work, which has taught me a lot about myself. College is not a choice for me. I have to finish.”
Former vice chairwoman for the Tulalip tribe, Deborah Parker is a prominent advocate for tribal women’s rights and well-being, as is her daughter, Kayah George. She advocated on behalf of Native women during the fight to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was held up in Congress due to specific provisions that would protect Native women and tribal sovereignty. “As a survivor of domestic violence, I knew that I would someday be able to help another person,” she said. “When you are asked to protect someone, when you are asked to protect a nation, that is what you do. You armor up. … For me, it will be a lifetime of this work. It will never stop because every woman is worth protecting. Every man and every woman deserves justice.”
Charlotte Logan has a Master’s in Molecular and Cellular Biology from Brandeis University and spent a decade specializing in small RNA and mRNA processing in commercial labs. Recently, however, she opted to leave all that behind and enroll in the Onondaga Language Program (there are only a handful of fluent Onondaga speakers left). “I just felt like I fit perfectly into this place,” she said. “This land is so old and holds so much knowledge for Haudenosaunee people. This is where our confederacy was born. … I spent a lot of time going to school to be a scientist, only to realize that I was leaving out a huge part of my education. In order to be indigenous in this time period, I have to educate myself in my own traditions, history, and language, just as I do in the Western discipline.”
According to 18-year-old Joely Queen, being a Cherokee woman means being very strong. This fall, she will begin her freshman year at Savannah College of Art and Design. “Back in the old days, it was a matriarchal society,” she said. “The women were very vocal in the council and the home, and they owned the land. As a Cherokee woman, I believe that the world is mine.”
“Indians have always had a bad experience with anthropologists,” said Myra Masiel Zamora, an assistant curator at Pechanga Cultural Resources. “But that won’t ever change until Indians are anthropologists. That has been my way of navigating that world while still maintaining my own.” She approaches each of her research projects with a lens towards benefiting the Native community – a “180 to what normal anthropologists research have done,” she said. “Mainstream Western society is more about the individual. The ultimate goal of sovereignty is to be able to sustain our culture and take care of our own people for the future and for the people who are here now.”
You can follow Project 562’s journey via my blog and Instagram.
Images by Matika Wilbur
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