A search for Native Americans on the internet yields almost nothing but reductionist, 18th-century representations of a “feathered and leathered people”, Wilbur says. She hopes the pictures she’s taking can someday replace the stereotyped, dated ones found in internet searches, and the ones we hold on to in our collective psyche.
“I’m ultimately doing this because our perception matters,” she says. “Our perception fuels racism. It fuels segregation. Our perception determines the way we treat each other.”
Wilbur’s journey to this work has been long and winding. She calls it a journey of “self-actualization”. After earning a degree in photography from the Brooks Institute, Wilbur moved to Los Angeles, to become a fashion photographer, but says she soon grew disenchanted with the excess and frivolity of the entertainment industry.
She eventually traveled to South America, where she began photographing indigenous people. One night, in the mountains below Machu Pichu, she dreamt of her late grandmother. Her grandmother told her it was time to return home; to bring the lens to her own people. Several years and two Kickstarter fundraisers later, Project 562 was born.
Makita Wilbur has traveled more than 250,000 miles to capture the depth of Native Americans Photograph: Matika Wilbur for the Guardian
These days, Wilbur is on the east coast, traveling through the Haudonesonee land. On the road, she is often alone. She admits to being exhausted. Wilbur has interns but says they don’t last very long. “After two or three weeks, they start saying, ‘Hey, I really need to go home,’” she says. Still, Wilbur persists, sleeping where she can, on couches, and in her “big girl”, (her nickname for her RV). Sometimes, she’ll sleep on the floor of a stranger’s home. She has spent many nights on reservations in the most remote parts of the country.