Surviving Disappearance, Re-Imagining & Humanizing Native Peoples: Matika Wilbur at TEDxSeattle (Transcript)

I am from the Swinomish and Tulalip tribe. I am here today to carry the message from the silenced. To show you some of Native America’s beauty. And to encourage our collective consciousness to reimagine the way we see each other. Can we re-learn to see as human beings? Does the photographic image impact our lives and the lives of those around us? If it does, can we use that image to encourage and inspire one another? Do something for me: try to remember the last time that you saw a Native American in massive media. Is this what you saw? If it is, I wouldn’t be surprised, because between 1990 and 2000 there were 5,868 blockbuster-released films. Twelve included of American Indians.

All of them showed Indians as spiritual or in-tune with nature. Ten of them as impoverished and/or beaten down by society, ten as continually in conflict with Whites. However, the image of the professional photographer, the musician, the teacher, the doctor, were largely absent. What’s interesting is how this image manifests itself into our psyche. You see, when this image is shown to a young Native person, they report feeling lower self-esteem and depressed about what they are able to become or would like to become. Shockingly, when shown to the white counterpart, their self-esteem is raised.

If society only sees us as these images, it means that our modern issues don’t exist. Nor do our efforts like schooling and economic development through sovereignty and Nation building. How can we be seen as modern, successful people if we are continually represented as the leathered-and-feathered vanishing race? For the last ten years, my work has been about counteracting these images, to create positive indigenous role models from this century. My most recent endeavor, Project 562, is dedicated to photographing every indigenous nation in the United States. So far, I’ve driven 50,000 miles, shot 106 tribes, and shot thousands of rolls of film.

And each tribe that I go to, I interview folks, I ask them questions about identity and stereotypes. What does it mean to be a real Indian? How do we deal with blood quantum? Tell me about some of the issues within your community. But most importantly, can you tell me your story? Such as this one: here we have. Leon Grant Leon is an Omaha Indian. He was reared on a ranch in Nebraska.

When he was sixteen years old, he decided that he wanted to pursue an education. So he left a note for his folks while they were in town, and proceeded to walk for 49 days until he arrived in Phoenix, Arizona. When he got there, he put himself through a community college, undergrad, theology school, and eventually law school. And then he set up American Indian Centers all across the country. Because Leon told me at that time, Indian People were still considered lesser citizens.

This is a photo of my cousin Anna. Anna is Swonomish, Hualapai, Havasupai, Cherokee, Chemehuevi, and Salish. And, I was talking to Anna the other day, and I said, “Anna, do you think racism still exists in America?” Oh, and Anna started crying. And I was like “Oh, Anna!” and she said, “You know, Matika, if you want to know about that, all you have to do is go to the lunchroom. You can see the segregation.” She said, “I just don’t think it’s ever going to change.” And I said, “Oh, honey, of course it can change!”

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You see, I sat in that lunchroom. So I could relate to her. I just love her. This is Marva “Sii~xuuttesna” Jones. Marva is from the Village of Nilichinden, which is a tribe in Northern California with a colonized name of “The Smith River Rancheria.” However, the people are Tolowa. Marva is rad! You’d love her. And you’ll notice her 111 tattoo. When I asked her about its significance, she said, “I always knew I wanted to get my 111. Especially after learning the history of it being outlawed in California. California independent Indian tattooing was outlawed in the early 1900s. I always thought I was going to have one. Learning our history empowered me to get my 111. It was traditionally applied through the tapping method. For me it signifies my commitment to who I am. It signifies my ability to carry forward my ancestors’ message and the work that my people have laid for my community.

It also signifies courage and strength. I’ve had it since January 20th of 2011. It’ll be two years. I never thought about the experience of people staring at you everywhere you go until I got it. I really wasn’t prepared for that. I didn’t get it for those reasons. I’m really not one for attention, whether it’s negative or positive, it’s about a fifty-fifty. Airports, stores and public places, I feel like it’s made me not look at people anymore. You can tell that people judge you.

You can totally tell when they don’t like you. And sometimes they acknowledge you and they say, ‘Nice tatoo, sister.’ But some people are just like, ‘Who is this freak?’ ‘Why would you do that?’ I thought you could tell it’s tribal. But I guess people don’t know. So it’s brought on a new sense of patience for me.” This is a photo of a White Mountain Apache crown dancer. I had the rare opportunity to take this photo while I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They represent the mountain spirit gods, and dance for traditional, sacred reasons. This is Starflower Montoya. Star is Barona and Taos Pueblo. She’s wearing her traditional manta that she received during her coming of age ceremony.

When I asked Star, how do we navigate being an Indian in 2013, she said: “My grandma said it best: ‘You have to wear your moccasin on one foot, and your tennis shoe on the other.'” This is Paul Chavez. Paul is Bishop Paiute and Apache, which is in the Owens Valley. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to.

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