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!”

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.

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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.

Paul has spent his life dedicated to the preservation of Native culture. First by serving as the tribal chairman, by setting up TANF programs throughout Indian Country and by working with Native youth. While I was visiting Paul in Paiute country, I was most taken aback by the story of the “paya,” which means “water” in Paiyute. Pre-colonization, the Paiyute people constructed and managed 60 miles of intricate irrigation systems for millenia, long before the city of Los Angeles secured its largest water source through modern engineering over a century ago. After the Indian Wars of 1863, surviving Paiute returned home to find their ancient waterworks taken over by white settlers.

Today, 150 years later, the Paiute tribe is still in litigation for those waterworks. It’s a fine example of our tribes’ continued struggle for sovereignty. When I talked to Paul about these issues, he said, “The important thing is that we are here. We survived. If you think about it, every Native that is alive today as a result of our ancestors surviving. So you have to ask yourself, ‘Why are you here?’ ‘Why am I here?’ I’ve come to the conclusion for myself that we are here to carry on as a tribe. Otherwise, we will become our colonizers. We will just blend in. And that’s our struggle, not to do that, because being a Native person from here, or wherever you are, there’s value in being who you are. Not only as a tribe, but for the sustainability of the Earth.

It has a lot to do with our traditional, sustainable ways. The most fundamental part of being sovereign is believing you are sovereign. Believing that you are a nation. That’s the basis. Then, the next step is acting upon that. This is Jane Blackman. Jane is from the Pala tribe in Southern California and she is a devout Catholic. Jane wanted to have her photo taken in the mission. Here we have a photograph of Hayes Lewis. Hayes is the superintendent for the Zuni school district. And it’s really exciting.

The Zuni tribe just broke away from the neighboring district. When we were talking about how it was that they had come to decide this, we were talking about how federal policy has affected education, he said, “The next step in development is actually changing the policies and the structure of education that will make a difference. If you just take the structure of education the way it is, with its policies, practices and mandates, what difference does it make if you don’t go back into the community and basically rebuild from the bottom up?”

This is Guylish Bommelyn. Guylish is also Tolowa. He is an Athabascan speaker. He teaches his language in the tribal school there. Since I’ve been on this journey, I’ve met Athabascan speakers in Alaska, in California, in Arizona, in New Mexico, and the southern tribes say that the northern ones got tired of walking.

This is Mary Evelyn Baumgarten. Mary is just lovely. Mary is a retired professor from the University of New Mexico where she taught indigenous education. Mary is passionate about training teachers to work within indigenous communities. After a very long conversation about the history of boarding schools in this country, and assimilation, 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 already among us.”

This is Anthony “Thosh” Collins from the Salt River Pima tribe. Thosh is a bird singer. That’s his rattle there. Thosh is dedicated to total body wellness by eating mostly plant-based foods. When I’m with Thosh, it is always way easier for me to choose the salad over the French toast! So, I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We went down for the Gathering of Nations. I got there and I was like, “Oh, my God! There’s 21 tribes in New Mexico. Who am I gonna photograph, and how am I going to reach all of these people?” So I put it on Facebook: “I’m looking for friends, and I need to go to all of these tribes.” And I realized that my friend Dana’s mom was from Navajo Nation and Valerie called me and she said, “I’ll take you.” So we drove, and drove and drove and drove down a dirt road until we finally arrived here at Ray and Fannie Mitchell’s house. Ray and Fannie are 82 and 83 years old. They’ve been married for 65 years.

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They only speak Diné. So, their daughter translated for me. Ray is a retired railroad worker. He’s retired to ranch life. Fannie is a weaver. Here where they live on Navajo Nation, they live without running water or electricity. They live on a sheep camp. Fannie shears the sheep, dyes the wool and weaves the rugs. When I was going out there, I was feeling so sorry for myself, because it was my birthday. And I was upset that I was getting another year older.

But also because I was away from my family and my friends and then I got here and they made me mutton stew and handmade tortillas and they prayed for my journey and they made me feel like family. And I just felt so blessed. So, I was going into the famous Grand Canyon to photograph the Havasupai People. And I called Matthew. After I got permission from the tribal council to go there, I said, “I would like to come on Friday.” He said, “Well, do you hike?” I was like, “I have running shoes.” He said, “Okay, fine. Do you ride horses?”” And I said, “Yeah! I have cowboy boots.” He was like, “We’re going to put you on a helicopter.” So they took me down into the Grand Canyon.

Matthew says to me, “Matika, to get here, all you have to do is drive up old Route 66. You’ll see a sign for Havasupai. Turn right there. Drive until you see a helicopter. When you get there, tell the pilot you’re an Indian, he’ll let you on; he’ll bring you down.” I was like, “What?”

So, my mentor told me that “Courage is having fear, and doing it anyway.” So I mustered all of my courage: I got in my car, and I drove Route 66, I looked for the sign, I took the right, I found the helicopter, I showed him my tribal ID. I got on the helicopter and I arrived down there.

When I got off the helicopter, Benji and Matthew were waiting for me and all of my fear dissipated. This photo was taken at about 11:00 at night after a full day of shooting in the Canyon and all around their beautiful village. The Havasupai People consider themselves the guardians of the Grand Canyon. “Havasupai” means, “The people of the blue-green water.” This is Matthew in his traditional regalia with his daughter.

So the next day, I took this photo: this is Rex Tolusi. When Benji brought me over to see Rex, Rex said, “I really have a hard time talking with outsiders, because in 2000, surveyors came in, and they took our blood. They said they were going to help us with diabetes. And then they used our blood to try to prove that we weren’t from the Canyon.” So I didn’t set up my microphone, I didn’t take my camera out of my bag. I sat and visited with Rex for a while. We talked about what it’s like. I said, “I, too, I grew up on a Rez, I, too have suffered from the effects of our inter-generational trauma, I, too, am recovering.” And we had similar paths, as teachers in tribal schools. And we cried for the students that we’d lost.

Finally, after Rex heard that I could make really good fried bread, he said, “You can turn your microphone on.”

“What would you like me to tell the people?”

He said, “Remind them that we all come from the same Mother Earth. I think they may have forgotten. Tell them that all of us, the brown, the red, the yellow, the purple, we are all from the same place. Our job is to take care of our Mother. But mostly, tell them we survived.”

As I was driving out of the Grand Canyon, on the road to come here, I was just so overwhelmed by gratitude. I was crying. And I started thinking about all the people that have supported my journey so far: the generous Kickstarter contributors, the people that have fed me and housed me, and prayed for me. And sent me off in a good way.

I realized that people are supportive because they believe in a cause. Because, at the core of it all, we all want to remember that we come from the same place. That we belong to one another. So, the journey continues! Thank you.