Words and Images: Kevin Gover and Matika Wilbur on Native American Experiences Past and Present


Continuing on the themes addressed in last week’s posts relating to the “Americans” exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story,” Marabou shares two videos with you that voice opinions of perspectives not explicitly represented in “Americans”: that of contemporary Native Americans.

The first video is of Kevin Gover‘s Tedx Talk entitled, “(Re)Making History: The Real Story Is Bigger and Better.” Kevin is the Director of the NMAI and is a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.

In his talk, Kevin echoes Chimamanda Adichie’s sentiments about the danger of perpetuating a single story. For his opening example, Kevin describes how he learned about Columbus “discovering” America and goes on to explain how writing history is a process of erasure, memory, and revival. Many of the historical points he touches on are addressed in detail in the “Americans” exhibition. The exhibition poses the question, “How is it that Indians can be so present and so absent in American life?” Kevin provides insight saying,

Our origin myths in American mostly include Indians and this is interesting, right? It includes Tisquantum or Squanto. It includes Pocahontas, it includes Sacajawea. It includes Osceola. All of these were very important figures in American history, and yet in each case, they’ve been rendered imaginaries. They’re imaginary Indians. We know very little about the very real people, who they were, and the very real impact they had, not just on their Native American communities, but on America and on the world. And that’s too bad because it’s an extraordinarily rich story. But it’s also too bad because America has a bit of a love affair with these imaginary Indians. Because imaginary Indians can be anything we want them to be. They can fill any role that we might choose for them. They can be what we need to tell a good, happy story. And that is at the expense of real Indians, the real Indians who are with us today.

The second video is of Matika Wilbur who describes herself as a visual storyteller from the Swinomish and Tulalip peoples of coastal Washington. Matika started Project 562 in 2012 to, “help develop a body of imagery and cultural representations of Native Peoples to counteract the relentlessly insipid, one-dimensional stereotypes circulating in mainstream media, historical textbooks and the culture industry. To create positive indigenous role models to do justice to the richness and diversity and lived experiences of Indian Country.” (This video is part of Matika’s Kickstarter campaign and explains Project 562. Marabou isn’t fundraising on behalf of Matika, but if you feel moved to support her, Marabou says do it!)

Matika’s work creates a nuanced contemporary narrative of the Native American experience that challenges and disproves the idea of US indigenous cultures as monolithic and of the past. In her video, Matika explained that her work and its impact is ongoing saying,

For hundreds of years our native ancestors have been calling for the authentic story of our people to be told, but an elder told me that our stories cannot be shared overnight. It takes a lifetime.

Matika also gave a Ted Talk about Project 562. You can watch it here and listen to her describe the stories of the individuals she photographs.

Kevin and Matika are contemporary voices in the analysis and stewardship of Native American representation in history and visual culture. Both are working to revive Native American histories that have been erased and purposefully misinterpreted, while at the same time creating spaces for Native Americans to have their stories told and not be maligned or overshadowed by historically ingrained stereotypes. In his Ted Talk, Kevin says, “You see, we decide generation by generation, we still get to decide what to remember and what to forget and so this is an ongoing process.” In response to this quote, Marabou has two questions addressed to the general population of humans and decision makers at influential museums: How long will it take for us to decide that there is more than one story for us to remember? When will realize that we must do a lot of work to honor the people and events that past generations have consistently decided to forget?

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