My name is Matika Wilbur. I am from the Swinomish and Tulalip Tribes. Ten years ago, I sold everything, packed my bags, and hit the open road to begin a Kickstarter-funded mission to visit, engage with, and photograph more than 500 tribal nations. I learned many lessons, the most fundamental being: We are on Native land. My new book, Project 562, documents hundreds of people I met and stories I heard, a selection of which are excerpted on the following pages.
North America is Indian Country. America’s first people have a deep and knowing relationship with its lakes, rivers, cities, estuaries, canyons, and mountains. But the mainstream stories told to children in America fail to reflect this truth—as seen in the songs we teach, the holidays we celebrate, our romanticized tale of Hawai‘i as a paradise vacationland (instead of an illegally annexed kingdom), and so much more.
Together, these stories perpetuate a historical amnesia that negates treaty rights, dilutes Indigenous sovereignty, and overlooks Indigenous nationhood. My work is dedicated to uplifting the complexity, resilience, and joy of contemporary Native peoples, and in so doing, dissipating the archaic and racist invisibility our people have endured.
As we travel the country in search of adventure, let us do so—as we say in Indian Country—in a good way. What does that mean? It means that we educate ourselves about the historical origins of the lands we’re visiting. We learn the Indigenous place names. We implement Indigenous values in our everyday lives, including principles such as the “seven generations,” by which we make decisions based on the seven generations that came before us and the seven that will come after us. We can ask ourselves: How might I make this place a little better than the way I found it? Can I support the Indigenous economy of the place I’m visiting? Or better yet: Is my presence here disruptive?
A perfect example of when travelers might want to ask themselves these questions is when they consider hiking the Nüümü Poyo (the People’s Trail), or as settlers would call it, California’s John Muir Trail. This walking trail crosses land that was originally inhabited by Ahwahnechee, Paiute, Miwok, Mono and other Tribes. It connected the inland people and coastal people, who were displaced by an act of Congress supported by John Muir himself, who is colloquially exalted as the “Father of the National Parks.” This celebration doesn’t acknowledge the deep trauma this man set into motion. Many Native people still don’t have access to the Nüümü Poyo, because access requires a permit that can only be acquired by lottery, forcing Native people to compete with the masses on one of the most popular long-distance hiking paths in the American West.
The ongoing impacts of colonization are devastating and immeasurable. I believe that we all have the power to help combat these systemic oppressions. In our own small ways, we can each do the work to travel responsibly and give back in the midst of adventure.
[I met Paula Peters] on the storied shores of Cape Cod, a place iconic in the American imagination as an immensely beautiful, exclusive outpost of the rich and powerful. But the Cape, as it is known, is another place entirely when viewed through the lens of Indigeneity. This stunning seaside expanse in fact occupies the ancestral lands of the Wampanoag people, a “first contact” Nation with whites.
Paula collaborated with Mayflower 400, a retrospective multimedia project that commemorated the four-hundredth anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival in North America. “For nearly four hundred years they have tried to erase us from the land without realizing how impossible that is,” she told me. “We are the land, the land is us, and we are still here.”
“One of them came down and said he was the Great White Father who lived in the big White House to the east,” says Rex Tilousi, a member of the Havasupai Tribe. “He told us, ‘You live in a very beautiful place where Mother Nature has been at work. We’re going to call this place a national park. And the boundary that we are going to put around this canyon, you are not allowed to go behind.’
“We still speak for these things, we still fight for these things. The songs that are sung by the floodwaters, we still sing and dance to that music today.
“And that’s what I want to share with those of you that want to know a little more about a place called the Grand Canyon, a little history of the things that we have lost, along with the language, the songs, the springs, the rock writings, the caves. To us, this is our Grand Mother Canyon.”
Las Vegas Paiute
Fawn Douglas is pictured in front of the “Welcome to Fabulous Downtown Las Vegas” sign wearing a traditional Jingle Dress. Most people don’t think of Las Vegas as a Native place, but for Fawn, it is her traditional homelands, and home to the Las Vegas Paiute community. Tourists seldom know that the Nuwuvi or Paiute people are the original keepers of that territory. Fawn explained that Las Vegas would not be the city it is today without the Nuwu—the Southern Paiute word for “the people.” In fact, Fawn’s grandpa Raymond Anderson (Ekyp) was a fabricator of the original “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign.
Dr. Noe Noe Wong-Wilson
Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian people) have been fighting to stop the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope since 2009. For Kānaka Maoli, Mauna Kea is considered the most sacred place. The destruction and ongoing desecration from tourism and the existing thirteen telescopes on Mauna Kea have been devastating to the mountain’s fragile and unique ecosystem and are blatantly disrespectful to Kānaka cultural beliefs.
“Āina, land, is an inseparable part of our identity as Hawaiians,” says Dr. Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, a professor, educator, cultural practitioner, and Native rights activist. “To see it abused in this way is painful to the soul. It’s painful to our Native soul. That’s why we stand.”
San Carlos Apache
For more than thirty years, John Sneezy danced in the powwow arena as a Grass Dancer, performing a modern men’s dance. In 2016, he made the journey to the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirit Powwow (BAAITS), where he felt safe to dance the way he’d always wanted: in the Traditional Cloth category, a graceful slow dance that is customarily danced by women.
He says, “I dance in honor of those who committed suicide because they couldn’t handle the bullying. I dance for those who were murdered because they were transgendered or Two-Spirited or lesbian or gay.
“And so I feel when I come here and I dance, put all my heart into it, and I gather their spirit and release it into the arena, because they couldn’t . . . it is a way to show that we can all be as one.”
The Coast Salish Sea is the life blood of our Coast Salish people. The dugout canoe served as our vessel to travel long distances, ensuring sufficient quantities of food, establishing and renewing Tribal alliances, and preserving social and ceremonial contacts, which, in turn, permitted our culture not only to survive but to flourish.
Our way of life remained that way until the colonizer arrived.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the federal government wanted our people to vacate our longhouses, to relocate to prisoner of war camps, now known as Reservations, and to distance ourselves from our traditional lifeways.
Our ancestors fled to the islands in their canoes. The feds responded by burning or sawing them in half. Even today you can visit our canoe bone yards.
The canoe is more than just a vessel to carry our bodies; it carries the hope and resiliency of our people. We are living in a time of cultural resurrection—the Coast Salish Sea beckons us to commune with the ocean in our traditional way. These spiritual voyages embody our indomitability and Indigenous sovereignty. This is a revolution.
Michael Frank lives in one of the most extraordinary homelands—the vast “river of grass” of the Everglades, which in its natural state is a place of overflowing biodiversity that is at the core of Miccosukee identity and lifeways. Michael is a tireless steward and activist for his people and homelands.
“We want to keep our culture and our traditional life,” he says. “We are very strict on who can live here. That protects our sovereignty.”
This struggle began with the genocidal anti-Indian military campaign, the Indian Removal Act enacted under President Andrew Jackson, commonly known as the Trail of Tears. The Miccosukee were removed from the South, but about one hundred remained, hiding out in traditional camps on islands in their territory and carefully preserving their way of life.
Ruth Demmert is a distinguished educator who has enriched the lives of many people through Western curriculum development and teaching Tlingit language, songs and dances, and proper drumming techniques: “We still push education, but we also push our culture on them, especially the values. Respect for oneself. Respect for others. Respect for elders. Respect for the land and what it has to offer us.
“When you look at the younger children proudly doing what they were taught, you know that your culture will survive through them. I am glad that I was a part of it. Some of the mothers were pregnant with their babies when they joined the dance group, and their babies just love it now. They love the drumming. It must be just like hearing their mother’s heartbeats.”
Project 562: Changing the Way We See Native America (Ten Speed Press) is out now. Learn more at project562.com.