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A new residency program designed to highlight Native American artists is making its debut at the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle.

Dubbed “The First Residence,” the program’s premiere installation, “The Salmon People,” is curated by internationally acclaimed photographer and filmmaker Matika Wilbur and will be on display until March 13, 2023. The installation is presented by the Seattle Kraken, Climate Pledge and sponsored by Smarthsheet

Wilbur, from the Swinomish and Tulalip Tribes, curated the interactive installation in collaboration with Shaun Peterson, an artist from the Puyallup tribe. 

Wilbur is behind the renowned Project 562: Changing The Way We See Native America. The photography project is devoted to documenting more than 562 tribes and has been turned into a book coming out this spring.

Along with her photography work, Wilbur also co-hosts All My Relations, a podcast featuring Native American issues. 

Peterson is known for his work in revitalizing Coast Salish art traditions. Wilbur said she was lucky to work with Peterson because he helped her design an underwater world that was integral to the installation.

“I wanted to create an installation that was really playful and fun and easy to understand,” Wilbur said.

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When she was asked to curate an exhibit highlighting the current climate crisis, she thought of the salmon and her responsibility to give them a voice and to teach people how everyday actions impact the species.

The installation highlights the relationship tribes in the Pacific Northwest have with salmon and allows visitors to interact with salmon in a way they’ve never done before. 

Visitors can run with the salmon as they swim through the installation; they can hear the salmon songs and see the dances, which is accomplished in a modern context, Wilbur said. 

While she wanted people to experience the salmon and see themselves in the salmon’s world, she didn’t want to share too much of the private cultural practices, so she curated an exhibit that let everyone celebrate the salmon without compromising traditional beliefs. 

“It took a lot of different people to put the work together,” Wilbur said.

Wilbur had a team of local Native American artists standing with her, helping her curate an installation she always wanted to do. She had help in recording the songs and dances, animating the salmon, and even had regalia and blankets specifically designed with the hero salmon in mind to be displayed and worn by dancers.

“The most exciting thing is that I was able to put something like this together because of Smartsheet’s support,” Wilbur said. “This is a really expensive project, this isn’t a project you can do if you are an individual artist like me. I’ve wanted to do these interactive installations for years now, but I haven’t had the budget to do so.”

With programming, equipment, installation and making it visible, the exhibit would be too expensive, but with Climate Pledge Arena as the stage, Wilbur is able to reach more people with her message.

“For me, I just really hope people interact with the exhibit the way it’s intended, that they play with it and have fun, at the same time think about what it would mean to be a better relative to the salmon,” Wilbur said. “Each of us have to answer that question and ask ourselves if we’re doing a good job being stewards of the Coast Salish Sea, of our relatives, of our original agreements.”

She wants visitors to understand their role in the life of salmon and to learn about the choices we make and how those choices impact the salmon.

“I also think the most important conversation we can have is a conversation about what’s happening with our salmon people, our salmon relatives,” Wilbur said.

She hopes that visitors also see that the salmon carry beautiful teachings and that they learn from them and take notice of other lessons from the natural world about life, renewal and abundance. 

Wilbur said that Native American artists are often stereotyped.

“We’re often pigeonholed into a narrative about trauma and poverty and hardship,” Wilbur said.

While those hardships are real and impact many Native Americans across the country, Wilbur said there is also good and happiness coming from those communities, and art should be allowed to let that shine.

“I feel that our artwork should be allowed to be joyful,” Wilbur said.

Letting artists share their vision and their voice is what “The First Residence” is all about.

Amelia Ransom, vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Smartsheet, said the project is all about being in a good relationship with the community.

“Our Native communities are very much part of who we are and how we are and too often do not get the limelight they so well deserve for stewarding this land for so long,” Ransom said. “To me, that is a way to show people the richness of our community here in the northwest. It’s a unique place, it’s a special place, and if we can show people that through showcasing other people, that’s exactly what we want to do.”

Ransom said they’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback about the installation, and she’s watched as visitors made their way through the immersive experience.

“Matika is already fantastic and she’s already a pillar in our community, and she’s already someone we can be proud of,” Ransom said. “We just want to give her whatever we can to help her continue to do the great work that she’s doing in our community.”

The idea to elevate voices in the community through art is something Smartsheet is proud to move toward.

“We’ve been really focused on a lot of STEM programs with our sponsorship and with this, we introduced art because I think art is really telling of a culture,” Ransom said. “Whenever we see culture, we look to see what art they produced and what it means to them and how it resonates with them. So this is our way of connecting art back to the community and connecting community back to art.”

The installations are designed with the future in mind and are made to be temporary, so new artists in the community can also be showcased. They want to ensure that each collaboration and installation is paying homage to the artist’s vision and voice, she said.

“We’re doing it so we can amplify all the good things that are already happening in our community,” Ransom said. “That’s our goal. It’s important that people are able to be the protagonist in their own stories.” 

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