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Confluences: The Land Carries Our Ancestors

‘Welcome to Confluences, a weekly column on art, kinship and life. Each week we approach one of the themes of the magazine’s current print issue by looking at a creative event, endeavour, or body of work that links to that theme and taps into a larger conversation with the world around us.

“Colonial genocide sought to take knowledge from us: to take our land, our food, our culture, our stories, our oral history, our children and grandchildren, and our encyclopedic languages that name and describe the natural world and how we interact with it, all the plants, animals insects, trees, mountains, and waterways,” writes artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, curator of The Land Carries Our Ancestors, on view until 15 January 2024 at Washington, DC’s National Gallery of Art.

‘Colonial genocide sought to take knowledge from us: to take our land, our food, our culture, our stories, our oral history, our children and grandchildren, and our encyclopedic languages that name and describe the natural world and how we interact with it, all the plants, animals insects, trees, mountains, and waterways.’

— Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

With this exhibition, Quick-to-See Smith - a citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation - has collated works by almost 50 intergenerational living Native American artists hailing from across the United States. Walking through the gallery, I’m struck by the breadth of perspective and identities showcased and simultaneously by the display of self-representation. Reading the exhibition text, I realise I’ve picked up on a curatorial theme; as the text states, the artworks “reflect the diversity of Native American individual, regional, and cultural identities. At the same time, these works share a worldview informed by thousands of years of reverence, study, and concern for the land.” Spanning a wide range of mediums - painting, sculpture, beadwork, photography, printmaking and video- the exhibition offers a nuanced, intentional, intensely dignified representation of the creativity, self-determination and survivance of the US’s Indigenous peoples.

“I believe that artistic talents are wonderful gifts from the Creator, and these skills and knowledge are meant to be shared and not to be owned,” says artist Linda King (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes) in the placard beside her work. “Through the cultural arts, important historical stories are handed down, shared, and maintained from past generations. When we create our own stories today, we provide a path to our future.” In this vein, many of the featured artists make a point to not only preserve traditional methods and modes of artwork but also to situate Indigenous artwork firmly in the present and future as well. I’m particularly enamoured with Tlingit artist Preston Singletary’s blown and sand-carved glass sculpture, Raven Steals the Sun. The sculpture alludes to the Tlingit peoples’ story of the origin of the celestial bodies - in which Raven, a trickster, captures the sun, moon, and stars from a greedy chief and releases them to the world - underlining the importance of oral storytelling. At the same time, Singletary’s choice of medium reimagines these histories into an existence that is vividly persistent and continually innovative - his artwork is not a relic of a dead culture but the defiant assertion of a living and breathing one. Working with glass “transforms the notion that Native artists are only best when traditional materials are used,” the artist explains. “It has helped advocate on behalf of all Indigenous people, affirming that we are still here. We are declaring who we are through our art in connection to our culture.”

‘We are declaring who we are through our art in connection to our culture.’

— Preston Singletary

Preston Singletary (Tlingit), Raven Steals the Sun, 2017, blown and sand-carved glass, Collection of Jerry Cowdrey. © Preston Singletary. Photo by Russell Johnson

Throughout the exhibition, artists examine and articulate their relationships to land and place. One long wall is taken up by a checkerboard of sorts, framing a variety of smaller works by different artists in conversation with one another. This arrangement, I learn from a wall text, is designed to illustrate the destructive effects of the Dawes Act of 1887 federal legislation which split up communally-held tribal lands into individual allotments that could be privately owned. Surplus land within reservations was granted to non-Native settlers, the result being a checkerboard pattern of land ownership. The law’s enforcement “fragmented Native families and communities, disregarded tribal self-governance, and took land from Native nations,” the text states, “yet, Native peoples survive and adapt.” And so the works on this wall depict a handful of the ways that Native American artists relate to and engage with landscape today: from the abstracted painting of Athena LaTocha (Keweenaw Bay Ojibwe/Standing Rock Lakota), which uses walnut ink and other natural or found materials to nostalgically evoke the wilderness of the artist’s Alaskan upbringing; to an image from the black-and-white photography series by Will Wilson (Diné), Auto-Immune Response, which sees him exploring a “quixotic” postapocalyptic relationship between the Diné (Navajo) people with a beautiful yet toxic environment.

Will Wilson (Diné), Auto-Immune Response no. 2, 2004, archival pigment print (digital carbon) on archival paper, Courtesy of the artist

Star WallowingBull’s (Ojibwe/Arapaho) colourful lithograph, Modern Day Indian, also takes aim at environmental destruction, honing in on the US government’s practice of dumping nuclear waste on tribal lands - an activity which results in what WallowingBull refers to as “radioactive reservations”. Poignantly, Jeffrey Gibson’s (Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians/Cherokee Nation) artwork, To Feel Myself Beloved on the Earth, hangs directly opposite a punching bag completely covered in elaborate beading work with the title spelt out. In Gibson’s work, the impact of environmental devastation becomes palpable and personal: “When we damage or treat the land without regard for its own sustainable well-being, we are in turn hurting and damaging ourselves and disregarding our own well-being, safety, and health,” he writes in the accompanying placard. To be a steward of the land, it feels clear, is to equally be a steward of culture and life.

Star WallowingBull (Ojibwe/Arapaho), Modern Day Indian, 2004, lithograph crayon and colored pencil on paper, Collection Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas. © Star WallowingBull. Photo by EG Schempf

To me, the ethos of the exhibition is summed up most wholly in Orchestrating a Blooming Desert, an enchanting oil painting by Steven Yazzie (Diné/Pueblo of Laguna, New Mexico and European descent). In the painting, a man stands in a desert meadow, his arms aloft - a conductor’s baton in one hand and a small bird held gently in the other. He faces away from the viewer; he doesn’t need an external audience. No, he is in situ: standing in synchronicity with the ecosystem he is a part of. All around him are lush euphorbia; reams of wildflowers; errant blooms sailing through breeze and elegant, statuesque saguaro cacti. In the distance, rolling mountains and the early pink and orange haze of sunset.

I stand before this painting for a long while, immersed in its cosmology. Eventually, I think I can smell the flora and the red clay earth, hear the birdsong and the whisper of wind through scrubland, feel the embodied knowledge of home, belonging and synergy that the artwork story-tells. “My work explores the complexities of the post-settler-colonial Indigenous experience as it relates to personal identity and community relationships,” writes Yazzie, “Our essential connection to the land is the source of life, stories, conflict, and healing.”

‘Our essential connection to the land is the source of life, stories, conflict, and healing.’

— Steven Yazzie

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