Photo depicting Matika Wilbur posing at the entrance of the "Salmon People" exhibit.

Climate Change and Indigenous Identity at Matika Wilbur’s ‘Salmon People’

by Amanda Ong

Through March 13, Matika Wilbur’s new multimedia art installation, “Salmon People,” will be on view at Climate Pledge Arena’s first-ever artist-in-residence program. The First Residence is a new residency program for Native American artists, and it is funded by the Seattle Kraken, Climate Pledge Arena, and Smartsheet.

Photo depicting singers wearing traditional garments and performing as part of the "Salmon People" exhibit.
Created by Matika Wilbur and illustrated by Shaun Peterson, “Salmon People” is a multi-media work that integrates photography, song, dance, illustration, and animation to encourage viewers to interact with the installation. (Photo: Josué Rivas)

Wilbur, Swinomish and Tulalip, is the multitalented creator and director of Project 562, a national photography project dedicated to photographing over 500 tribes in the United States. Her book chronicling the 10 years she spent traveling to photograph these tribes, Project 562: Changing the Way We See Native America, will be released on April 25. She is also the co-host of the podcast All My Relations, a feminist podcast that discusses Indigenous relationality and Indigenous kinship over colonial individualism. Now, she brings her diverse skills and interests to “Salmon People,” an interdisciplinary art installation reflecting on climate change, salmon, and Indigenous livelihood.

“We have an old adage here, a saying that we live by in the Pacific Northwest: ‘When the tide is out, the table is set,’” Wilbur said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “We have for millennia made our way of life in relationship with the Coast Salish Sea, and in relationship with the salmon. … Our cosmology and our epistemologies, the way that we come to know ourselves, the way that we describe ourselves, the way that we come to know our origins are all deeply tied to how we take care of salmon.” 

Wilbur was drawn to create an installation centering around climate change — as she comes from a family that has been invested in advocacy to protect salmon for years, it seemed like a clear conclusion. Initially, she hoped to photograph or film salmon, but she quickly found that this posed some issues, as it was winter, not the season for salmon. After taking her 3-year-old daughter to an interactive garden in Los Angeles, her daughter was so excited and happy to be a participant that Wilbur felt inspired to think of her own exhibit as an interactive and multimedia experience.

“I also wanted to make an exhibition that was light and playful and joyful, because our people are like that,” Wilbur said. “Our people are so joyful, but we’re often depicted as stoic, angry, or suffering Indians. And I wanted to create an exhibition that uplifted our joy too. … And it’s kind of serendipitous, that an exhibition about the salmon people would turn into an exhibition that is very interconnected and interdisciplinary and requires relationships with many people for it to happen, because that’s kind of what the salmon teach us.”

Photo depicting two youth interacting in the "Salmon People" exhibit.
Wilbur decided to create an interactive and joyful exhibit that kids could enjoy after seeing her own daughter play at an interactive garden. She felt the joy of the exhibit also reflects the joyousness of Indigenous people, who are often stereotyped as stoic. (Photo: Josué Rivas)

The exhibit features illustrations by Shaun Peterson, or Qwalsius, who helped design the salmon. Wilbur also included footage of Suquamish friends singing a salmon song and dancing, dressed in regalia handmade by Wilbur and her mentor Ervanna Little Eagle. The footage is also illustrated and animated. The resulting exhibit is immersive and dynamic, and brings together collaborators from many Pacific Northwest tribes: Suquamish, Muckleshoot, Puyallup, Swinomish, Tulalip, and Warm Springs, all coming together to reflect on their relationships to salmon. 

“For us in the Pacific Northwest, the salmon people that make our way by our relationship with the Coast Salish Sea, we ask ourselves, who will we be if we no longer have salmon?” Wilbur said. “The exhibition is playful, and then it turns a bit reverent, and women dance a salmon homecoming song. For us, it is a way to give thanks to the salmon that give us life.”

Wilbur hopes to bring the installation to a new location after its time at Climate Pledge Arena comes to an end. But for now, see “Salmon People” before March 13 at the Climate Pledge Arena at 334 1st Ave. N.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Matika Wilbur, a filmmaker, photographer, and soon-to-be published author, was inspired to create an exhibit around salmon and the Indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest as a way of speaking to the impact of climate change on Indigenous practices and livelihood. (Photo: Josué Rivas)

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