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Native photographer Matika Wilbur talks art, perceptions of Native American culture

Yvonne Kim, Assistant Campus Editor

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Matika Wilbur’s goal to “change the way we see Native America” first began when she sold everything in her Seattle apartment and set off in an RV to travel the country, she said in a talk Thursday.

Wilbur — who is Tulalip and Swinomish — spoke at the McCormick Foundation Center to a crowd of more than 100 people about her experiences interacting with Native people all over the nation. The talk was hosted by the Women’s Center, the Native American and Indigenous Peoples Steering Group, the Buffett Institute and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Wilbur continues to travel the country as part of Project 562, which is named after the number of Native tribes that existed at the time of the project’s inception. Her goal is to visit all tribes in the country.

“We had one major goal,” she said. “To drive conversations about the ubiquitous appropriation of Native American culture and to encourage our collective consciousness about our own indigenous communities.”

Throughout her talk, Wilbur showcased photos of and told stories about indigenous people. She spoke about the lessons she learned from her travels, describing the importance of language, nature and ancestry to Native people.

Though Western culture does not always require people to preserve oral history, the stories of ancestors “live on” inside Native societies, she said.

“The past is always happening,” Wilbur said. “In indigenous societies, when I sing a song, I acknowledge who taught me the song and whose song it belongs to. And when I do that … that’s how (our ancestors) live on. That’s how our stories live on.”

By showing photos of Native people she had met, Wilbur said she hoped to change perceptions and recognize the diversity among Native peoples.

Ninah Divine (Weinberg ’16), who is Cherokee and coordinator of the Native American and Indigenous Peoples Steering Group, described Wilbur as “a strong Native woman who advocates for contemporary Native art and … people.”

Due to Northwestern’s location and the history of its founders, everyone at Northwestern intrinsically has a connection to Native people, Divine said. She said it is important for everyone to recognize and interact with contemporary Native people.

“So many of the issues that Native academics (and) community members talk about are just universal,” Divine said. “We talk about the environment. We talk about human rights. We talk about relationships. … We’re talking about topics that are very interdisciplinary and that can really connect to a lot of different things.”

Marissa Uri, a SESP freshman who is Cherokee-Choctaw, also said the way people perceive Native Americans is important and that Wilbur helped encourage a more informed understanding of Native peoples.

“It’s really important to think about how we envision Native Americans today,” Uri said. “(Many people) tend to see them as this archaic, uncivilized culture. So I really liked how she is countering that narrative … especially talking about stories of hope over devastation.”

Wilbur concluded her talk discussing the current conflict in Standing Rock, where Native people continue to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, which could potentially contaminate the water source for nearby Native land. She said though the situation is terrible, it is important for demonstrators to remain advocates of peace.

“Out of this really ugly thing came this really strong resistance,” she said. “We have strength amongst us.”

A previous version of this story misstated Marissa Uri to be Cherokee and Choktaw, and a Weinberg freshman. She is Cherokee-Choktaw and a SESP freshman. The Daily regrets the error.

This story has been updated to clarify the size of the event and comments from Ninah Divine.

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Twitter: @yvonneekimm

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