Native American Portraiture in the Twenty-first Century

Makita Wilbur, Mary Evelyn Belgarde (Tribal Affiliation: Pueblo of Isleta and Ohkay Owingeh), 2014.

Tacoma Art Museum – Matika Wilbur’s Project 562

Native American Portraiture in the Twenty-first Century

As a defining image of the Native American, ‘the noble savage’ is couched in condescension. Like so many entrenched notions, it’s a very old one. Its originator, Jean Jacques Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Men (1755), comments on the “natural man.” He reveals a theme of envy, of longing for an Arcadian existence. “The more we reflect on this state (a life of harmony with nature), the more convinced we shall be (that’s it’s) the best for Man.” Rousseau likens greed and the lust for progress to “some fatal Accident, which, for the public good, should never have happened.” ‘Savages’ were held up as a good example for decadent Europeans.

Makita Wilbur, Chief Bill James (Tribal Affiliation: Lummi Nation), 2014.

Still, being identified as a naturalist savant is better than being branded as a hell-raising, ignoble savage. Historians have handed down an extensive folklore that includes Native Americans at both behavioral extremes. What’s clearly missing is a sense of them as individuals with inner lives, and their own values.

As for our visual record, 19th century genre painters like George Caitlin—using what was, at the time, state-of-the-art entertainment media—traversed the west, drawing and painting Indians for an eastern audience hungry for novelty and spectacle. Rock Hushka, Tacoma Art Museum’s curator for Photographic Presence and Contemporary Indians: Matika Wilbur’s Project 562, states that photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868 – 1952) was responsible for the 20th century edition of the Noble Savage. History’s defining moments have been covered repeatedly by successive generations of biographers, and—to the extent that current attitudes inform the work—the newer iterations tend to feature progressively more dimensional, accurate observation.

Makita Wilbur, Sky and Talon Duncan (Tribal Affiliation: Three Affiliated Tribes of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Tribe), 2014.

Photographer Matika Wilbur is documenting members of American tribes—close to 600 of them—as the basis for her current, monumental series of photographic portraits and audio recordings. In these portraits, the sitter’s self-determination is crucial, an element often lacking from the paternalistic or romanticized depictions of times past. To the uninitiated viewer, though, the surprising thing isn’t so much the photos themselves, arresting as they are. It’s the scale of the project. As mentioned below, it took Edward Curtis thirty years—albeit without crowd-funding and social networking—to undertake his version of the photographic tribal record. When Ms. Wilbur began her project about two and a half years ago, there were 562 Federally recognized tribes; now there are 566. There’s nothing to suggest in recent popular culture (let alone common knowledge) that there are that many tribes extant.

Mr. Hushka recently spoke to, revealing the development of this project, and the process of creating the exhibition.

Makita Wilbur, Stephen Yellowtail (Tribal Affiliation: Crow Nation), 2014.


Rock Hushka – I’ve known Matika for almost ten years. When she mentioned that she was doing this project I asked if there was any way the museum could help her or support her in her endeavor. After a few months of silence, we started speaking about the project and where she was, and I suggested that we do an exhibition of her work. And my goal was to help her at a very early stage in the project, to refine, or double-check what she was doing. Was she going to get the kind of photographs that she wanted? Were the interviews going well? Was she getting the kind of feedback or interaction that she’d envisioned?

So the purpose of this first project, which was very small, about forty-five or fifty images, is to let her double-check her work before she plunges into the next (laughs) three hundred (or however many)… – So, the epic scope was intended from the early days of the project.

Hushka – She knew that she was doing all of these tribes; that she was going to make portraits from all 562 tribes. And knowing the last time someone did this, it took thirty years. It was Edward Curtis’ North American Indian Portfolio.  What Matika wants to do is undo that kind of romanticized version, that stereotype of the Native American Indian. Curtis looms large in Seattle, because his studio was here. And his photographs are celebrated and loved because they’re beautiful. But they also point to a time and a cultural belief that Native Americans were literally disappearing. –Those numbers would speak to their perseverance.

Hushka – Even during Curtis’ time, the thirty years he took to finish his project, Native Americans, the population had started to grow almost exponentially. World War II** changed a lot of stuff, though. It’s an interesting, complicated thing.

Makita Wilbur, Adrienne Keene (Tribal Affiliation: Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians), 2014.

Editor’s Note: **Despite second class citizen treatment and outright governmental neglect, Native Americans were, as a whole, engaged and committed soldiers. Apart from a generally warrior-like heritage, their patriotism was motivated by the war effort, and the knowledge that the Axis Powers considered them fully attached to an enemy nation.

The upshot is that Native Americans, like never before, were integrated in the Caucasian domain. In many instances this led to flight from the reservations to the cities, though not necessarily to en masse assimilation into American society. End Note

Hushka Curtis started in 1905, and finished photographing in about thirty years. And then he and his daughter spent the rest of his life trying to financially benefit from all of the work that he had done. And Timothy Egan just wrote a new biography of Curtis called Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher. But even before Egan’s bio, Matika had been struggling against the stereotype of Native Americans, partly from popular culture, but then, also more specifically from these photographs. And so what she’s decided to do was take on this effort to use her skills as a photographer to show the richness of the contemporary native experience. It’s such an interesting thing, the way everything’s unfolded. It began as a blog and as a Facebook page, and this entire social media network is helping her connect to individuals around the United States. She started in late November of 2012. She headed off to California, and then spent a lot of time in the Southwest, the Puget Sound area, and then she’s done a number of shoots with people in Hawaii. – Based on the historic literature, even the material balanced in terms of cultural diversity, you would not get the impression that there were as many extant tribes.

Makita Wilbur, Star Flower Montoya (Tribal Affiliation: Pueblo of Taos and Barona Band of Mission Indians), 2014.

Hushka – Well, that’s the historical myth that she’s pushing against. The Federal Government had organized and signed all these treaties, with all of the nations across the country, and trying to show that they didn’t disappear. And that members of all of the tribes are successful and engaged in preserving traditions, being standard-bearers for their people. And, doing amazing things like being heads of museums, or college professors, or rap stars, or actors, or fashion designers, filmmakers. And to want to undo the Johnny Depp** type of caricature. (laughs)

Editor’s Note: **This is a reference to last summers’ The Lone Ranger, in which the not normally insensitive actor, Mr. Depp, took it upon himself to revive the classic Tonto red-face act, perhaps thinking he had the liberal cred or artistic license to do so. The character of the Lone Ranger has had a long run, throughout the 20th Century and beyond, in radio, movies, and on television; only as of the television era has Tonto, the ultimate sidekick, been portrayed by Native American, or non-White actors. End Note

Hushka What’s interesting is that Matika’s using two different types of photographic processes. One is standard gelatin silver print, and she’s hand-tinting them. And then the second is a digital output. A digital gelatin silver print with some coloring, as well. Or even just plain inkjet printing. And this kind of straddling of traditional photography and new digital media I think is a really subtle metaphor for the kind of experience that she’s capturing.

Makita Wilbur, Darkfeather, Bibiana and Eckos Ancheta (Tribal Affiliation: Tulalip Tribes), 2014. – That relates to my one question about her aesthetic process. The finish of the photos is muted, or matte, but the backgrounds are monochrome, and the figures are color-tinted. Is there a specific reason for that choice? It seems as though it might be a commentary on fashion magazine conventions.

Hushka – I think you’re right. Matika very carefully and methodically works with each subject, each person, to identify how they want to be presented, where they want to be presented. And because of her conversation with them, as they make the photographs, she wants to pull the person forward and make them the center of the image, and not the setting.

I think another thing that’s happening, when a Native American individual will declare their tribal affiliation, Matika begins, “I am Matika Wilbur, daughter of …” and then she will go through the tribes Swinomish and Tulalip. And what we have to understand is that the tribal names refer not only to tribes, to political entities, but also affirms the person’s relationship with their ancestors, and to a place. And so there’s this really tight connection between all of those meanings of a tribal name. So, it’s a place, it’s an ancestral relationship, and it’s a political entity. So, it’s a really interesting tension that she’s triggering.

Makita Wilbur, Raymond Mattz (Tribal Affiliation: Yurok Tribe), 2014.

Makita Wilbur’s Project 562 opened May 17th

Tacoma Art Museum
1701 Pacific Avenue
Tacoma, Washington 98402

By: Larry Rodman, for