When I was a boy (back in the Middle Ages - 1960s) we American Indians* were portrayed on TV and the movies as hopeless drunks, savages who spoke broken English at best, rapists, turncoats, and other equally unsavory characters. Newspapers and news shows did little better with most of the stories I read or saw focused on Native crimes or poverty, mostly in a "isn't that too bad let's move on now" vein. As though this weren't enough I was surrounded by plenty of white adults and children who thought nothing of tossing out racist jokes and comments about American Indians (and African Americans and Hispanics as well) without batting an eyelash. Bigotry was acceptable and in some quarters applauded.
Of course, much has changed in the intervening years if only the fact overt racism has been replaced in many quarters by subtler versions. Gone are most of the Hollywood movie stereotypes but not the notion among many that American Indians are all steeped in poverty or stone-faced in the face of suffering, past and present.
Enter photographer Matika Wilbur, a member of both the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes, who decided to use her considerable artistic gifts & perspective to capture the faces of members of all the federally recognized American Indian tribes in an ambitious project she calls "562" (The number of federally recognized tribes when she began her odyssey in 2010, with four more having been added since). In-a-word she wants to debunk the many false, hurtful images and stereotypes that surrounded Native American culture and society and to reassert the fact that Native peoples had not only survived centuries of marginalization, wanton cruelty and wholesale extermination but have held on to their own identities, heroes and sense of pride.
A November 23 2013 piece by NBC news at http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/native-american-travels-across-u-s-p... had this to say about Wilbur's mission:
One of those stereotypes is the image of Indians clad in feathers, nearly naked running across the prairie, whooping it up like what's oft portrayed in western cinema. Also the caricature image of Indians as mascots.
With that in mind, Wilbur said the project is meant to drive conversations about the ubiquitous appropriation of Native American culture and to discuss how U.S. citizens can evolve beyond the co-opting of indigenous images and traditions.
"I hope to educate these audiences that it's not OK to dress up like an Indian on Halloween," she said. "I'm not a Halloween costume. I hope to encourage a new conversation of sharing and to help us move beyond the stereotypes."
Wilbur added that she hopes her photos -- her craft -- will display the "beauty of (Native) people and to introduce some of our leaders to a massive audience."
Of course, it takes money to fund such an ambitious undertaking and no amount of cutting corners could ever stretch Matika's own meager funds far enough to cover her ambitious undertaking. For this she turned to Kickstarter.com to raise needed money and, after raising an initial sum of $35,000.00 she set out on her quest.
Wilbur is not, of course, the first photographer to focus on American Indians. In 1906, photographer and ethnologist Edward S. Curtis was commissioned by J.P. Morgan to go out and capture the “disappearing” race on film. Given the fact that over a century has passed since Curtis's undertaking, Matika's quest is not just welcome but long overdue.
To date, Wilbur has photographed citizens of over 159 tribes.
Readers who'd like to invest in Matika Wilbur's vision can do so by going to https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/matika/project-562-changing-the-way...
* I am a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma