Project 562


Throughout history, artists have utilized their craft to take action and influence social justice. Art in many ways is the highest expression of culture, the human experience, and the desire for change. The impact of such works on societies can be powerful and enduring.

Project 562, created by acclaimed photographer Matika Wilbur, is a national documentary project dedicated to photographing contemporary Native America. This project works to counteract stereotypical images of American Indians by creating positive indigenous role models from this century.

The 2010 U.S. Census shows approximately 5.2 million Native Americans living in the United States. Despite the success and diversity of Native Americans, misleading and stereotypical images are perpetuated through mass media. Project 562, the first undertaking of its kind, will dramatically change that.

Matika Wilbur is gathering original photographic images and oral narratives from all Native communities throughout the United States, organizing and presenting compelling portraits and stories from elders, culture bearers, linguists, teachers, activists, artists, professionals, and other contemporary Indians. When the project is complete, it will serve to educate the nation and shift the collective consciousness toward recognizing our indigenous communities.

Matika Wilbur Photography, Project 562.

Matika Wilbur ( Swinomish and Tulalip ) is a photographer and activist who created Project 562. Her mission is to humanize and share the stories that Native Americans would like told. Wilbur believes that "the time of sharing, building cultural bridges, abolishing racism, and honoring the legacy that this country is built on is among us. My goal is to represent Native people from every tribe. By exposing the astonishing variety of the Indian presence we will build cultural bridges, abandon stereotypes, and renew and inspire our national legacy." Wilbur has driven more than a quarter million miles across the United States to meet with Native people. She says, "to meet people in their own ancestral homelands, to arrive and walk and sleep and join them where they have been for millennia, is so deeply affecting and important in getting right what we are doing."

Scroll to learn about four individuals whose stories and work Matika has documented to help fulfill the mission of Project 562.

Dr. Adrienne Keene

Dr. Adrienne Keene ( Cherokee ) is a graduate of Harvard University and currently a postdoctoral fellow in Native American studies at Brown University.

Dr. Adrienne Keene ( Cherokee ) is a graduate of Harvard University and currently a postdoctoral fellow in Native American studies at Brown University. Dr. Keene has a deep personal commitment to increasing educational outcomes for Native students. She is dedicated to pushing back against stereotypes and misrepresentations of Native peoples.

Matika Wilbur Photography, Project 562.
In her blog, Native Appropriations —which has received national and international attention as a voice on contemporary Indigenous issues—Dr. Keene asserts: "We are taught every day that our cultures are something of the past, something that exists in negative contrast to 'western' values, and something that can be commodified and enjoyed by anyone with $20 to buy a cheap plastic headdress. These stereotypical images feed into this ongoing cycle, and until we demand more, our contemporary existence simply doesn't exist in the minds of the dominant culture."

Two men dressed as the Lone Ranger and Tonto at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo. Photo courtesy of Chris Favero and Flickr Creative Commons, 2015.
Discussion Questions

Dr. Keene observes that Native cultures are often thought of as existing only in the past. Why is this idea problematic?

Why would Native Americans object or be offended when people dress up as Native Americans for Halloween?

Pend d'Oreille Elder Stephen Small Salmon

Pend d'Oreille Elder Stephen Small Salmon ( Salish Kootenai ) is a fluent speaker of Salish Kootenai and works at the N'kwusm Salish Language School in Montana.

Pend d'Oreille Elder Stephen Small Salmon (Salish Kootenai) is a fluent speaker of Salish Kootenai and works at the N'kwusm Salish Language School in Montana. He began working at the emersion school because in his lifetime he saw fluency in Salish Kootenai fall from 100 percent fluency to only 10 percent. Language immersion can be key to helping young Native people know and understand their cultures. The N'kwusm Salish Language School's goal is to bring the language back to the people. Small Salmon says, "I spoke the language all my life. I went to boarding school, but my mom, dad, and grandparents all talked Indian to me when I came home. So I was honored for that. I have a drummers group. I dance to honor the elders that came before me. I enjoy working with kids, especially the little ones. They're really happy all the time. I never did think that we would lose our language, but I can truly say we almost did. And so today, we do our best to save it."

Matika Wilbur Photography, Project 562.
Pictured on the left is a Navajo boy named Tom Torlino as he entered the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. On the right, Tom is pictured again a short time after his assimilation education had begun. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States government implemented various assimilation policies in an effort to force Native communities to abandon their traditions and beliefs and adopt the practices of Western society. Boarding schools were one of the most widespread mechanisms for eliminating American Indian cultures. In boarding schools, Indian students were forced to cut their hair, dress like Americans, and were not allowed to speak their Native languages. These educational practices had a major impact on individual identity and the ability of Native communities to retain their own languages. Although most American Indian people today speak English, they still consider their traditional languages to be extremely important for cultural identity.

Photographs by John N. Choate, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, #53,599 and #53,599-A.
Discussion Questions

If you were forced to communicate without using your own language, how would that impact your ability to express your ideas, beliefs, and values?

People's ways of living, their histories, and their philosophies are all understood and communicated through language. How does Steven Small Salmon's story display agency of Native Nations to reclaim and preserve authentic identity and culture?

Raymond Mattz (Yurok)

Raymond Mattz ( Yurok ) was arrested nineteen times for fishing on the Klamath River in California. He brought his case all the way to the Supreme Court and set a precedent for the Judge Boldt decision.

Raymond Mattz (Yurok) was arrested nineteen times for fishing on the Klamath River in California. He brought his case all the way to the Supreme Court and set a preceden for the Judge Boldt decision. He recalls the turning point in that case: "We had laid out our set net, but the Feds were there with their big guns, as were the reporters with their cameras, all waiting for us to go pick our net. I knew that if I picked my net, I'd be forcefully arrested, again. So, we watched the commotion from the shore until finally, my great-grandma said, 'Enough of this, I'll go.' And so that little old Indian lady paddled out in her canoe and picked the net. And then came the officers, with their assault rifles, ordering her to stop. And the photographers came, too, capturing that very moment. A photograph of that confrontation made the cover of a national magazine. And then my tribe won our court case, being granted half of the fish and game within our indigenous territory."

Matika Wilbur Photography, Project 562.
Many accounts of the first "Thanksgiving" portray Native Americans as supporting players: they are depicted as nameless, faceless, generic "Indians" who merely shared a meal with the Pilgrims. The real story is much deeper, richer, and more nuanced . The Indians in attendance, the Wampanoag, played a lead role in this historic encounter, and they had been essential to the survival of the colonists during the newcomers' first year. However, it was not long before relationships soured between the Wampanoag and the colonists who had invaded their lands, and warfare erupted in New England. Like the Wampanoag, thousands of American Indian Nations and communities across the continent have their own histories and cultures. As people living in the modern world and dealing with contemporary issues, Native Peoples continue to be an integral part of the American story.

The First Thanksgiving, J.L.G. Ferris, 1932, LOT 4579,
Discussion Questions

The painting, The First Thanksgiving depicts and reinforces an incomplete and romanticized history. What roles do iconic images like this have in building a narrative of the American story and shaping views of Native Peoples and their histories?

Even though Raymond Mattz and other Native Americans of the time were important leaders in the fight for civil rights during the twentieth century, their efforts are not widely known. How might it impact Native communities when their actions for justice are left out of the history books?

Why do you think incomplete or incorrect narratives of the American story persist? Whose responsibility is it to correct the narrative?

Frank Waln (Sicangu Lakota)

Frank Waln ( Sicangu Lakota ) is an award-winning hip-hop artist and recipient of the Gates Millennium Scholarship . He currently performs nationally and internationally, offering inspiring indigenous messages of hope and resiliency.

Frank Waln (Sicangu Lakota) is an award-winning hip-hop artist and recipient of the Gates Millennium Scholarship. He currently performs nationally and internationally, offering inspiring indigenous messages of hope and resiliency. He credits his teachers, elders, and ancestors for maintaining the cultural belief systems of the Lakota people: "They would send our medicine men to mental asylums. Our ceremonies had to be held at night so that the police and the church wouldn't hear us singing. It was our love for culture, community, and for ourselves that kept our ceremonies alive. Indigenous ceremonial practices in the United States were outlawed. Yet here I am, twenty-four years old, and I get to practice our ceremonies. Our ceremonies survived. And to me, that's a beautiful thing." Frank's dedication to helping his people fuels his passion for his artistry, "I love making music and performing," he says. "I'm an artist. I make inspiration. I make hope for people back home. People call me an activist and a rebel, but how does wanting my people to be happy, healthy, and respected make me an activist or a rebel? It makes me a human being. Hopefully I'll see the day that wanting those things for my people won't make me a social outcast."

Matika Wilbur Photography, Project 562.
Fans of numerous professional and collegiate teams sing an imaginary Indian war chant and use a chopping motion, commonly referred to as, "the tomahawk chop" to support their teams. Many Native Americans believe these actions perpetuate negative stereotypes of Native people as warlike savages. Requests to the teams to stop using such gestures and imagery have been largely ignored.

The Tomahawk Chop, photograph by Kyle James, 2010. Photo courtesy of Kyle James and Flickr Creative Commons, 2015.
Discussion Questions

Waln discusses the outlawing of Native ceremonial practices. Why would people practice their culture despite the possibility of arrest?

Waln's work spreads a message of love for culture, community, and ceremony. How might common practices like the "tomahawk chop" undermine Waln's message?

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