Words by Ebony Allen Photography by Matika Wilbur
It’s a cold and early Monday morning when I finally catch Matika Wilbur on the phone. She’s driving, something I learn that she’s done fairly constantly for the past three years while working on her visionary project: Project 562.
After a successful career in professional photography, Matika packed up her life in Seattle, hitting the road with her camera and a vision of photographing people who live within the then 562 federally recognised tribes in the United States.
‘Matika’ in her peoples language means ‘the messenger’, and the message that she now brings to the world raises awareness of the diversity of Native Americans, dispelling the historical inaccuracies that have permeated the world’s consciousness of what it means to be an ‘Indian’.
As a young girl living on the Swinomish Reservation in Washington, her grandmother and other Elders would constantly remind her that her name was no mistake, that she was born for the people and that one day she would understand what that means.
Today, she understands her role as the messenger and as a proud Swinomish and Tulalip woman.
When I ask her what it is like to be a Native American woman in today’s society she tells me that being Indian is different to being Swinomish.
“When I identify as an Indian I am identifying using white language,” she says. “There has been a long history of colonisation, attempted genocide and suffering. When I say I’m Swinomish … that is who I am.”
The stories Matika shares with me resonate so much with the Australian Indigenous experience.
She talks about the intergenerational trauma that still exists from colonisation and the Residential Schools – boarding schools for Native American children that forced them to assimilate, not practice their culture and not speak their languages.
“It’s a war to reject Colonialism, and our nation still forces assimilation on our people even if it’s not overt. The effects of the visible assimilation era are not over. The blood is still wet and the stain has not been cleaned.”
To stay strong when she is regularly visiting communities that – like many of ours – are destitute and fraught with social problems, she prays to the creator.
“I have moments where I feel like I can’t keep going,” she says in a sullen tone. “But the spirits needed this work to be done. I was needed.”
Amidst tough times there are incredible moments when she realises how important the work is, and how privileged she is to meet so many inspirational people.
She happily retells the story of being in the home of an Elder, a 97-year-old grandmother who bounced a two-year-old baby on her knee whilst singing her a song in her language. When she was done, the woman started crying and told Matika she never thought she would live to see this day.
“It [using her language] wasn’t legal in my day,” she said through her tears. As Matika consoled the woman it dawned on her how strong she must be to still have hope, and to have silently worked to maintain her culture through many years of oppression.
Another time she was working on a health project for the Government, and while driving through the reservation she spotted a boys and girls club.
None of the other people in the car wanted to go in but for some reason Matika had a strong urge to stop and go inside. Leaving her colleagues behind, Matika entered the club and found a group of young boys in a drumming circle.
When they were finished drumming the boys came and met her, one with tears streaming down his face. When Matika asked him why he was crying he said, “We asked the creator about a month ago to send you here to us and I can’t believe you walked through the door.”
Since starting Project 562, Matika’s work has grown from strength to strength. Her website now features videos and stories of the people she has met along the way, and with her public profile growing she has used every opportunity to share stories of Indigenous America.
When I ask her what’s next, she describes a long list of places she’s driving to in the next month. I giggle, realising that maybe I should’ve framed the question better.
“No, I mean with your work, your legacy, what’s next?” I ask.
“Legacy?” she questions in a warm, humble way. “I really don’t know to be honest. I’m just a girl from the rez.”
Ebony Allen is a proud Aboriginal woman from the Kamilaroi and Dharug nations in NSW. By day, Ebony is an ex-lawyer, writer-person who is passionate about social justice and empowering Indigenous voices, people and communities. By night, Ebony contemplates her next trip across the world in a pink unicorn onesie.