But the physical exhaustion is often less difficult to bear than the emotional weight of the stories she has heard. Wilbur speaks with passion and distress about the young Native Americans who are growing up on the reservation today. “What happens when a people have lost their sense of connection to the land, to their spirit, and to the things that make them whole?” she says. “They look around and wonder about the future. And they turn to things that fill those holes inside of them.” Things like drugs and alcohol.
Chief Bill James, Tribal Affiliation: Lummi Nation Photograph: Matika Wilbur for the Guardian
Wilbur has personal experience with addiction and has dealt with substance abuse in her own family. She says she has recently celebrated “14 years on the red road”, a Native American term that refers to complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol in an effort to find cultural and spiritual wellness. She recalls too, her former students’ battles with substance abuse.
“Over the years, I’ve lost several students to drug addiction and suicide,” she recalls.
“Some of our students see this and say: ‘is this what it must mean to be an Indian?’
Today, Native Americans comprise a little under 2% of the US population or, according to the latest Census data, about 5.2 million people. And “three out of four of our women today have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault,” Wilbur adds.
Bahazhoni Tso Tribal Affiliation: Navajo Nation Photograph: Matika Wilbur for the Guardian
Despite this, Wilbur is committed to excavating stories of hope, not despair from Indian Country. “I want to be able to go home, and share stories of resiliency from across the Nation.
I want our children to know about all of the strong advocates- the weavers, language holders, canoe builders, song keepers, medicine people, tribal leaders, elders, and so many more who are dedicated to protecting our ancestral life-ways so that they can grow up strong citizens of their Tribal Nation” she says.
And so, her gaze is fixed firmly on the horizon, on tomorrow, on moving beyond the past, in every sense. “Our goal as people has always been to be of one mind, one heart, and one spirit,” she says.