Photographer Matika Wilbur talks about the struggle of the modern Native American and her attempt to frame the issue in the exhibit Save the Indian, Kill the Man

I didn’t originally aspire to be a documentary photographer of Native American people. First I went into celebrity photography in Los Angeles, and then I moved to New York thinking I wanted to be a fashion photographer. Then I took a job for NPR and moved to South America, where I started photographing indigenous people. I’d been there about a year when I had this dream involving my grandma, who passed on several years prior. I’d never had a dream with my grandma before. She asked me, “What are you doing photographing their Indians when you haven’t even photographed your own?”

I came home [to Swinomish] and I started asking my Elders questions. What does it mean to be an Indian?

In 1887, the U.S. government started a program called “Kill the Indian and Save the Man.” The idea was that if you assimilate all of the Native people, they will lose their savage ways and become working members of society. The course of action, outlined by Captain Richard H. Pratt from Pennsylvania, was to take all of the Indian kids off of the reservations, force them to speak English, cut their hair and impose Christianity on them.

We have this historical trauma that’s been passed down from generation to generation, which has become a behavior in a sense. But there are people that have managed to break that cycle. I photographed those people and asked them questions about stereotypes and how they were affected by those positions of assimilation. A lot of them talked about the difficulty of existing in both worlds, to make the transition from living on a reservation to being a part of Western society, and then going back to the reservation.

One of the images is of my cousin Diana Jones, who is part Swinomish. Her mother is of European descent and she is blonde. Blue eyes. And she grew up on the reservation fishing with her parents, going to traditional ceremonies. She was raised as a Native woman but she doesn’t look like one. And so she was teased by all of the other Indian kids for not being Indian enough. When she left the reservation and went to college in a non-Indian community she found herself in a cultural duality.

When I was growing up in Swinomish, I’d cross the bridge every morning from the reservation and go to public school in La Conner. Then I’d cross the bridge every night and go back to the reservation. Crossing that bridge in the mornings, I knew I was different, that I was going to a different place, but we didn’t talk about it. AS TOLD TO MARK BAUMGARTEN

Save the Indian, Kill the Man will be shown as part of the Northwest Biennial at Tacoma Art Museum, Jan. 21 through May 21, 2012. Shown here is “Two Indians,” one of Wilbur’s photographs from the exhibition.