A Washington photographer’s quest to document every federally recognized tribe in the US

Matika Wilbur’s book Project 562 took 10 years to complete. 

TULALIP, Wash. — Photographer Matika Wilbur knows the power of a great image. As a member of the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes, she’s always believed she could refocus how Native Americans are portrayed.

But when she couldn’t find any contemporary representation of and by fellow Indigenous people, she set out to make it herself.

“We needed something in the contemporary context to teach our children about who we are. And there just wasn’t a book like that, that represented many tribes made by Native people, for Native people,” said Wilbur.

So in 2012, Wilbur sold her belongings and hit the road on an ambitious quest: to document a Native American person from every federally recognized tribe across all 50 states.

“I imagined when I started this project that I would do it in three years. I thought I would go to two tribes a week, plus large gatherings. But that didn’t happen,” Wilbur said. “It took a decade to make this project.”

Her efforts have culminated in a book called Project 562: Changing The Way We See Native America that was officially released on Tuesday.

“Historically, we’ve been so misrepresented. And not just historically, but contemporarily were misrepresented,” said Wilbur. “Project 562, for me, has been a work of love. I do it because I love our people and because I love our children, and I want our children to have the opportunity to see themselves in a good way.”

She traveled 600,000 miles traveling the country, often not knowing who she would meet.

“It’s scary to walk into a place that you’ve never been to, with no friends or relatives when you get there and ask people to talk to you, you know. So I had to get over that,” said Wilbur. “I asked them how they wanted to be photographed, where they wanted to be photographed, which subjects they wanted to approach.”

Wilbur wanted the interviews to be about what was important to the subject and the stories they wanted to tell about their community.

“This work is supported and lives because of community, because of the people that I photographed, the people who let me into their homes and people who shared their story with me”

It may have taken Matika Wilbur a decade to make Project 562, but the powerful images and stories will spark generations to come.

“72% of Americans say they’ve never met a Native person. And so, this is an opportunity for that to change,” Wilbur said. “Hopefully through this process, it can help people to bear witness and have an intimate and personal relationship with some of the people in these pages.”

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