Strength, resilience, and resolve. The faces of the women in Whatcom Museum’s new exhibition, “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Stories of Native American Women,” reflect courage, determination, and devotion shown despite adversity, domestic violence, tribal disputes, personal loss, and more. The captivating images by Matika Wilbur—a photographer from the Tulalip and Swinomish Tribes, and the creator and director of Project 562—runs through June 13 at the Lightcatcher building, 250 Flora Street.
The exhibit features 28 photographs of Native American women, along with interviews, written narratives, and an audio compilation featuring the sitters’ sharing their stories.
As an artist and social documentarian, Wilbur’s insight, depth, and passion with which she explores the contemporary Native identity and experience are communicated through the artistry of her silver gelatin photographs.
She is the only Native American photographer to be welcomed into more than 500 Native American sovereign nations in the United States.
Wilbur collaborated for the past nine years with scores of tribes and has curated these striking photographs from among thousands of portraits taken in recent years. Elders, activists, educators, culture-bearers, artists, and students have shared with Wilbur their realities as Native women and how ancestral and contemporary identities shape their lives and hopes. Written narratives and audio of the interviews she conducts as part of her project accompany the photographs.
“We portray the extraordinary lives and stories of Native women throughout North America. I believe the viewers will experience great understanding and connection with these remarkable women,” she says, “just as they have enlightened and inspired me.”
“Native women are traditionally the stewards of the vital relationship with land, and have remained principal advocates for Mother Earth,” Wilbur continues, “from fracking protests to enduring matrilineal values. By exposing the astonishing variety of the Indigenous presence and reality, we will build cultural bridges, abandon stereotypes, and renew and inspire our national legacy.”
Amy Chaloupka, curator of art at Whatcom Museum, saw Wilbur speak to a packed crowd at the Ferndale Library in October 2019, where she gave her talk “Changing the Way We See Native America.”
“I was astounded by her dynamic mix of oral storytelling and striking visual imagery to share her experiences visiting and photographing people from more than 400 sovereign nations across the country,” says Chaloupka.
Chaloupka approached her in 2020 about the possibility of working with Whatcom Museum on both a talk and exhibition. But due to the pandemic, the museum was closed to the public. This delay allowed the museum time to seek funding for the project and support Wilbur in the creation of three new photographs.
“It was important to both the artist and the museum that the stories of regional sovereign territories be represented in the exhibition,” says Chaloupka. “Wilbur has worked hard to reach out to women from regional tribes for interviews and photography sessions to introduce new works for this iteration of “Seeds of Culture.”
The Museum will partner with Whatcom Community College to engage with different audiences and students, expanding the possibilities for additional programming related to Wilbur’s exhibition during early summer.
“Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Stories of Native American Women,” was originally shown at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. Whatcom Museum’s showing of the exhibition is presented by the Lhaq’temish Foundation, Lummi Nation, with additional support from Jean Andresen, Rafeeka and Neal Kloke, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Whatcom Museum Foundation, the City of Bellingham, and Grantmakers for Girls of Color.
“Matika’s photographs are vibrant, contemporary depictions, and the stories she relays are dynamic and inspiring,” says Chaloupka. “These are empowering images and stories that I hope many in the community see and celebrate, and I hope especially the Native youth of our community have the opportunity to see the exhibition.”
“Historically,” she adds, “museums have not been spaces that have been welcoming to Indigenous communities. Whatcom Museum believes it is past the time to amend this, and we are committed to building good relationships with our Indigenous neighbors through our exhibitions, programs, and partnerships. Exhibiting work by contemporary Indigenous artists like Matika Wilbur and making this exhibition free to tribal communities are ways we can move forward in a positive way as a museum.”
The museum is currently open for general admission at 50% capacity due to Covid-19 safety restrictions from noon to 5 p.m. on Thursdays through Sundays. Admission is free to members; $10 for general admission; $8 for ages 6 through 17, students, and military (with valid ID), and seniors age 62 and older; $5 for children 2-5 years old; and free to children 2 and younger. For more information, please visit whatcommuseum.org.
For more information about the Museum’s Covid-19 response and protocols visit the Museum’s Covid response page.
Featured photo by Matika Wilbur of Dr. Mary Evelyn Belgarde (Pueblo of Isleta and Ohkay Owingeh), 2014