On Native Land
Land Acknowledgments and art in Tacoma
Over Memorial Day weekend, my wife and I went to Tacoma, where we saw a splendid, inspiring, and thought-provoking art exhibit. Located at the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM), On Native Land: Landscapes from the Haub Family Collection explores the intersection between people and place through 14 landscape paintings. The paintings depict locations mostly across the west from Ch’inili (also known as Chinle Wash) to Nch’i-Wana (aka the Columbia River) to Seeds-kee-dee Agie (aka the Green River in Wyoming).
Many are classic images of landscape with big scenery and bold colors highlighting the beauty of place. When people show up, they are secondary, or even peripheral, to the scene, which is not an accident. Every artist makes a choice in what they depict and these artists more often than not simply ignored the people who lived there. Their presence would detract from the idea of wilderness as an area untouched by human impact. Or, if Native people were shown, it was often a romanticized vision.
Of course all of the landscapes in the show have been peopled for thousands of years. To emphasize this fact, the curators do something unusual. In a typical exhibit, the accompanying text would include details about the artist, what she/he was trying to accomplish, and how their work fit into the canon. At TAM, we learn none of this.
Instead, the goal of the exhibit is to encourage visitors to move away from the basic facts and to consider that one cannot separate the story of place from those who have inhabited that location since time immemorial. To help the visitor, the text (as you can read above) notes the location and includes Indigenous place names and Land Acknowledgements, which are a central part of recognizing the deep human stories woven into every landscape. In the words of exhibit advisor Amber Sterud Hayward, the language in the text “brings us, the Native people, to life instead of putting us in past tense.”
Over the past decade, more and more people and organizations have been using Land Acknowledgements. I know that they can be controversial, in that some people/groups seem to use them only because they are popular and/or required without making any effort actually to address the issues. I have one in my email signature and on the About page of this newsletter. I include a Land Acknowledgement because I feel it’s a step toward understanding the long stories of my home place, that it’s respectful to local Indigenous communities, and that it helps spread awareness.
I know that my work researching and writing Homewaters helped me in this journey of understanding, as well as showed me the importance of recognizing and learning about the Coast Salish people who inhabit the Pacific Northwest. I further know that I still have a lot to learn and hope to continue to share such stories in my newsletter. All of us have a role to play in healing and the more we know the better we are able to engage in this process.
No word of the week but here’s a comment I got about my ballast newsletter.
A ballast story you might find interesting comes from New Orleans, which is famously an export port, as it sits at the bottom of a river system draining the great American agricultural heartland. Ships have arrived there for centuries to carry away grains and goods from the interior. There was no equivalent inbound cargo (the rivers flow south, there is no northbound return), so the ships came mostly in ballast. Iron is a good ballast, so scrap iron was extremely cheap in New Orleans in sailing ship days. Apparently, the combination of cheap iron and French artisans resulted in the beautiful iron filigree you see on balcony railings, street lights and window shutters all over the French Quarter. If not entirely true, it is a good story.