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Four centuries ago—about the span of a dozen generations—colonization set in motion the patterns of settlement and development that dramatically altered the landscapes and ecosystems of our region, disconnecting many of us from the natural world while reinforcing dominion over the land and its original stewards, the Indigenous people whose lives have been intrinsically linked to it since time immemorial. These patterns have continued unabated, expanding the process of environmental degradation across vaster landscapes to the point where we now face a global climate crisis.
Centering Justice: Indigenous Artists’ Perspectives on Public Art, is exploring how Indigenous artists are transforming public understanding of the interconnectedness of life on Earth, fostering awareness of Native people’s relationships to place, and shifting the legacies of colonial land-use through their creative practices in public space.
For Courtney M. Leonard, a Shinnecock ceramic artist, expressing her people’s enduring interdependence with land and waterways is a cultural imperative. Through her series, “Breach,” she investigates the interrelationships between people, oceans, whales, and environmental deterioration, and she transmutes dominant settler colonial paradigms, often by probing nomenclature. “When colonists came here,” she said, “they named these lands after their old homes. New England, New York. What if I claimed the places I’ve traveled to and called them New Shinnecock?” That disconnect in place names extends to regional borders. Despite her tribe’s ancestral ties and proximity to the Wampanoag, Pequot, and Narragansett nations, American geographic conventions exclude Shinnecock people from New England, placing them in the Mid-Atlantic region. This divide complicates access to resources and is fundamentally out of sync with coastal Indigenous peoples’ longstanding relationships. Leonard said modern territorial boundaries “are aligned with capitalism and taxation—and definitely not aligned with Indigenous pathways of migration or connection of communities and knowledge of the natural world.” In drawing attention to these issues, she offers viewers another way to look at the land.
Native artists’ perspectives often differ from the dominant cultural lens, not only in relationship to land, but also in the sphere of creative arts. Western art’s strict disciplinary limits often marginalize Native creative practices, which can be more integrative. Narragansett artist Dawn Spears, for example, interweaves her food sovereignty activism into her art practice. She has worked with her tribe to reestablish traditional Narragansett flint corn, which is once again being grown after many years. The cornfield provides a space for creative practice and reflection and a platform for community engagement in ecological revitalization. Spears describes it as a public art piece. “We use it to tell our stories. It teaches us how to keep the land healthy and provides us with food to survive. The act of cultivating the corn works hand-in-hand with educating and sharing who we are…We use the plants to create art.”
Public art can be a locus for restoring ecologies and communities, but Leonard warns about the pitfalls of stereotyping Native Americans. “Water issues are universal and Indigenous knowledge should be shared to address them. But, if you're going to have engagement with Indigenous people, you must have an understanding of how to work together. It isn't like, ‘Oh, you Natives are stewards of the environment, go fix this.’ It's not as simple as that. We can't be the band-aids for society to fix the issues that were developed by society, but we can work together on these projects.”
Building relationships of reciprocity is at the heart of what Jenny Oliver, a Massachusett kinetic storyteller and movement artist, does within her dance practice and her community. For Oliver, “preserving the environment through public art is a place where we can have conversations about the disconnect that’s created by separating art from science, business, and government. This separation doesn’t reflect Indigenous peoples’ cultures. Part of the challenge of creating art from Indigenous perspectives in this dominant culture is that the colonial structure is set up around capitalism. There is cultural value to traditional art-making and the creative work of Indigenous people across the globe that doesn't fit in that system.”
Oliver’s work is aimed at breaking down the walls separating disciplines to bring forth a vision of liberation, strength, and resistance through multiple modalities. In her production, “Hot Water Over Raised Fists,” she uses movement, light, sculptural elements, and site specificity to create a visceral experience of empathy and hope. In an act of reclaiming her ancestral land, part of the performance-installation took place in Weston, Massachusetts, to connect the water struggles of the Oceti Sakowin people at Standing Rock and residents of Flint, Michigan, to colonial systems founded on theft, erasure, and oppression that continue to occupy the land.
Rejecting colonial patterns and ending institutional racism are as essential to addressing the existential threats of climate change as ecosystem restoration and conservation. Learning from Indigenous artists’ distinct cultural perspectives and ties to this place can have a strong impact in the public realm, but many barriers still exist. Native American erasure is pervasive and pernicious. The beneficiaries of colonialism can help to counteract this by rejecting the norms that enable it. Oliver says, “Taking responsibility to me looks like giving up power. It looks like resource sharing. It looks like breaking down the stereotypes and standards that only reflect the dominant culture’s values. It looks like supporting the collective energy and action of anti-Black racism, respecting the Indigenous people of the land, and restoring the environment. Those in positions of power must ask themselves what they are willing to give up to create space for others.”
Regaining balanced connections to the land and each other requires a critique of the systems that have exploited the land and people as well as our individual roles in those systems. By centering Indigenous artists, public art can create a dynamic convergence of culture and creative practice, social issues and ecology of place presenting transformative visions for the future and confronting the harmful colonial legacies that continue to shape our society and impact the land and water.
This blog post is part collaborative series: Centering Justice: Indigenous Artists Perspectives on Public Art
Courtney M. Leonard (Shinnecock) is an artist and filmmaker, who has contributed to the Offshore Art movement. Leonard’s current work embodies the multiple definitions of “breach”, an exploration and documentation of historical ties to water, whale and material sustainability. In collaboration with national and international museums, U.S. embassies, cultural institutions, and Indigenous communities in the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand, Leonard’s practice investigates narratives of cultural viability as a reflection of environmental record. Leonard holds an MFA in ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design and a BFA from the College of Ceramics at Alfred University, with additional degrees from The Sheridan Center For Teaching and Learning at Brown University, and the Institute of American Indian Arts, with a concentration in Museum Studies and 3D Design.
Jenny Oliver has been an artist in the city of Boston for 15 years, moving here after undergrad and working within the community as a teacher, performer, choreographer and advocate for artistic integrity. As a culturally Black person of Cape Verdean and Indigenous heritage with membership to the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag it has become important to her to address the erasure of Native people in her teachings and performances. In 2016 she established Connections Dance Theater as a way to work at the intersection of dance, education and philanthropy towards elevating issues affecting BIPOC people. She was the inaugural recipient of the DanceMaker’s Residency at the Boston Center for the Arts where she debuted her first evening length production, HOT WATER OVER RAISED FISTS; educating audiences about the injustice and urgency of water rights through the protests at Standing Rock and the ongoing crisis in Flint, MI. When she is not creating, she is elevating minds and empowering bodies on faculty at Tufts University, Emerson College, Deborah Mason Performing Arts Center and the Dance Complex. You can learn more about the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag at: www.massachusetttribe.org and her creative work at: www.ModernConnectionsCollective.com.
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