Documentary and photography artist captures Ho-Chunk life with ‘Project 562’

By Ken Luchterhand

It’s been a long, difficult task. Although it may be a lot of work, it’s one she is doing from the heart.
Matika Wilbur, a member of the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes of Washington, is working to capture the images, the voices and stories from each of the Native American tribes in the United States.
She’s working on her fifth documentary, this one named “Project 562,” with the number 562 referring to the number of Native American tribes in the United States.
She intends to visit and record comment of respected leaders of each of the tribes.
On Wednesday, Sept. 13, Ho-Chunk Chief Clayton Winneshiek was the subject of her investigation. She arrived in her Winnebago motor home that afternoon at Winneshiek’s home, where they gathered on lawn chairs in the back yard.
“I planned to approach it from a matter of identity, such as ‘What it means to be Ho-Chunk,’ or whatever tribe. I soon got tired of that. Now I’m approaching it as a ‘Natural Wonderment’ – a connection of each tribe with the land,” Wilbur said.
 Many of her film works can be viewed on her website,
She went through 100 tribes the first year and she averages two tribes each week.
Starting the project figuring to interview members from each of the 562 tribes, she soon found that her job was going to be bigger than expected. The number of tribes to exist in the U.S. is actually more than 700, she said, mainly because the government does not recognize some tribes.
Besides Chief Winneshiek, Wilbur also spoke to Ona Garvin, Rosalie Brownthunder, and JoAnn Jones as subjects in her documentary project.
“She asked me about my background, the history of the Ho-Chunk people, cultural things and early government history,” former Ho-Chunk Nation President and tribal leader JoAnn Jones said. “Her goal was to gather information and preserve the knowledge of the elders and to give an accurate picture of life as a Ho-Chunk.”
Jones told what the Nation went through when she was chairperson and how the Nation has grown, struggles and all, through the years. Wilbur took pictures of JoAnn and some video, in which she talked about how she was raised and the development of the tribal government.
The inspiration for this project came a decade ago when Wilbur was a teacher with her tribe and soon found out there was no accurate information on the Native American tribes in this country. She set out to change that.
With that inspiration, Wilbur began to develop the idea of Project 562 to counteract the stereotypes of Native Americans in mainstream media and textbooks. She wanted to produce an accurate image of the diversity and experiences in Indian Country.
Wilbur sold everything in her Seattle apartment and began her new project. She set out to engage and photograph all 562 plus Native American sovereign territories in the United States.
This project has driven her to travel hundreds of thousands of miles throughout the country, many in her recreational vehicle “Big Girl,” but also by horseback, by train, plane, and boat and on foot across all 50 states.
To fund her venture, she enlisted the help of “Kickstarter,” an online donation and funding source. Trying to keep costs to a minimum, Wilbur slept on sofas, being welcomed and hosted by strangers, often becoming friends with those people and sharing the muse of her project.
The photographs that Wilbur takes reflect her insight on Native American life and the beauty that often goes untold. She uses black and white photographs with color on selective subjects within.
She takes the time to understand the stories and histories of each tribes when performing her work. In her photographs, the creativity is unique with each tribe and individual. The setting and energy of each tribe or individual mold how the end artwork is produced.
She grew up in a small fishing community that introduce themselves by saying “I am Stahobes, I am Stahobes, I am Stahobes.”
Wilbur said that her tribes, the Swinomish and Tulalip Tribes of Washington, are a culture of canoe travel. She said that different groups with her tribes who have a designed role, such as fishing, or whale hunting, or gathering of food, and all there roles together provided for their needs. Her tribes lived communally in “long houses.”
That communal life came to an end when, decades ago, the canoes and long houses were burned by those people who wished to destroy their culture.
But recently, that old style of life is returning. Her tribes are building canoes and long houses again and returning to the culture that was taken away from them years ago.
Part of that return is a series of her videos on her website, 
The  Tribal Canoe Journey video is a collection of films chronicling the 2017 Tribal Canoe Journey along Coast Salish ancestral highways from Nisqually to We Wai Kai and We Wai Kum Nations.
Other videos she has produced and on her website include “San Francisco Two Spirit Pow Wow,” “Native Americans Are Running 4000 Miles,” and “Indigenous Women Rise in Eureka.”
The San Francisco Two Spirit Pow Wow video is from the February 4, 2017 Annual #BAAITS Two-Spirit Powwow in San Francisco.
The Native Americans Are Running 4000 Miles video is about runners and walkers crossing 12 states, 18 mountain ranges and touch down in 54 tribal communities in an effort to end toxicity.
The Indigenous Women Rise in Eureka video is about indigenous women from Karuk, Hupa, Yurok, Wiyot, and Tolowa-Diné, who march in solidarity with all people from every corner of the earth.
During her visit to the Ho-Chunk Nation, Wilbur earned the respect of many tribal members and they were encouraged by her enthusiasm and drive to accurately portray every Native American tribe.
“No one has previously undertaken such a project because the scope is so huge,” said Ho-Chunk Tribal Judge JoDeen Lowe. “She’s preserving our past and present, something that our younger people may not otherwise understand. She’s telling everyone ‘This is us, what we went through’ and gives us the inspiration of how to go forward.”