Sara Rubin here, thinking about the incredible vastness of our lived experiences—8 billion people with 8 billion unique stories and lineages. To make sense of all of it, we describe people in groups; storytellers, journalists included, tend to apply a lens to a particular community. But depending on how you focus that lens, and if you zoom in, you will find that there is more variety in any particular community than first meets the eye.
This is true at every level, but perhaps nowhere more explicitly so than with North America’s Indigenous people. For centuries they were not just victimized and enslaved, but also in the telling of their many stories, characterized in a flat plane. When there were anthropological efforts (by Western anthropologists) to narrate their story in more complexity, those anthropologists made some grievous errors, such as in 1925 wrongly declaring the Esselen people of what is now Monterey County “extinct.”
Matika Wilbur is an Indigenous woman from the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes of coastal Washington, and she was raised steeped in tribal traditions. In the early 2010s she was in her early 20s, living in Seattle, and wanted to do something about the flatness of the portrayal of Indigenous people. So she decided to set out on a mission: to photograph and document the stories of the diverse members of the many diverse tribes in the United States and tell their story.
She sold all the stuff in her apartment, fundraised (overcoming several big obstacles along the way) and traveled over 600,000 miles across all 50 states (and into Canada and Mexico—international borders that are a relatively new concept), visiting all 562 federally recognized tribal nations, plus many that are not federally recognized (including the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation in Monterey County). All told, she visited 750 tribal communities and documented the stories of some 1,200 people—in their own words, photographed in places and poses and dress of their choosing.
What Wilbur thought would be a three-year journey took 10, and the result is a new book, titled Project 562, released last week. Wilbur herself also grew up along the way, becoming a wife and a mom, and finally launching her book the week of her 39th birthday.
Yesterday, a week into Wilbur’s book tour, Project 562 landed on the New York Times bestseller list. “When you look at what we have to overcome to be represented in the public consciousness, it’s incredibly validating for me that my community really supported the publication—which sends a big message that we want honest and real and authentic representation of ourselves and we want to do it ourselves,” she says.
“We want power and agency.”
Wilbur has reclaimed some of that power and agency for herself and others, and along the way seen how unique her own tribal heritage is. Her mother is a traditional Swinomish fisherman, and she visited landlocked tribes where fish is never on the menu, but mutton is.
“I came to recognize the vast uniqueness of tribal identity,” she says.
She shares insights about the making of her book tonight at 5:30pm at a talk at the Middlebury Institute in Monterey. She says it was important for her to come speak in this community, although her publisher had just big cities in mind; she befriended Big Sur artist Jayson Fann who hosted a fundraiser for her project early on, and it’s with a sense of gratitude she returns to share what she learned along her journey about reclaiming the narrative.
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