This essay was written by Erin Genia (SMACT ’19), Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota. It was originally published by The New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) on July 10, 2020:
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of settlers from Plymouth, England, to the shores of Patuxet, which is today known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. The anniversary is being celebrated by the Pilgrim’s descendants and those who have settled here in recent generations. However, for the Indigenous people of this land, it will not be a time of celebration, but one of grief.
For 400 years, our region has been an epicenter of colonization in America. The settlers prospered from land theft, slavery, dispossession, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, and their descendants continue to benefit from these crimes against humanity, which have been whitewashed in our history books, public policy, and public places. This record has been enshrined through institutionalized racism and justified by self-proclaimed cultural supremacy. Responsibility for these transgressions is deflected to the past, yet colonial mechanisms persist in harming Indigenous peoples through the occupation of land and water, economic and political disenfranchisement, and social invisibility. These mechanisms occur openly, in public space, for all to see, creating a population desensitized to its legacy. It’s time to confront this reality.
Along with commemorating this ignominious history, 2020 has brought a wave of crises: the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed over a hundred thousand people in the U.S. and exposed the significant vulnerabilities of our economic, political, health and social institutions; uprisings in support of black lives and against state-sanctioned murders of black people and systemic racism; large scale economic inequality; and accelerating environmental and climate catastrophes. These crises represent profound failures that are rooted in colonialism.
Addressing Art in the Public Sphere
What is the role of public art in confronting these crises and inequities? Art displayed for all to see in our cities and on our infrastructure is not neutral. It reflects the ideologies of the artists who create it and the people who commission it. The politics of public space in a settler-colonial society cannot be separated from the artworks that inhabit it.
From my perspective as a Dakota artist, the field of art is loaded with contradictions. Western arts and culture purport to be founded on freedom of expression, yet have suppressed the right of Indigenous peoples to practice theirs, free from forcible assimilation. By extension, museums have undermined the cultures and creative arts of Indigenous peoples, stolen their cultural patrimony, perpetuated an ethos that casts restrictive narratives upon Indigenous peoples, and placed limitations on the roles of art. Monumental works have expropriated tribal territories and sacred sites and perpetuated colonial and Confederate myths and white supremacy. All these layers affect political and social realities by influencing public opinion and reifying colonial attitudes that justify the occupation of Indigenous lands and subjugation of Indigenous peoples and people of color.
Moment of Truth
For 400 years, tribal people in what is today known as New England have been hyper-marginalized. Native American perspectives and calls for changes in society’s course have been diminished and dismissed.
Despite this context, Indigenous artists working in our region’s public sphere are doing powerful work to navigate difficult barriers, and shift the frameworks of how their arts and cultures are understood. Their interventions open the way for profound healing for people and places oppressed by colonial systems. Through creative expression, tribal community work, advocacy, struggle, and movement building, they are conveying their connections to the continuum of life and their heritage, and setting the stage for future generations of all cultures to live and thrive.
By centering the stories, experiences, and work of these artists, and providing platforms for Indigenous artists to speak and be heard in this time of crisis, we can collectively learn what it means to decolonize and indigenize public spaces to imagine just futures for everyone.
Centering Justice: Indigenous Artists’ Perspectives on Public Art
Centering Justice: Indigenous Artists’ Perspectives on Public Art is a new series of conversations organized in collaboration with NEFA’s Public Art Team. Developed as a unique framework for disrupting harmful historic narratives and interrogating the ongoing legacy and impacts of settler colonization in our region, the series will present critical perspectives on issues surrounding public space, including the intertwined economic, ecological, cultural, and social justice dimensions.
Beginning with blog interviews featuring Indigenous artists from local, regional and national tribal communities, followed by a public, web-based symposium, Centering Justice: Indigenous Artists’ Perspectives on Public Art will explore such questions as: How is public space defined in a settler-colonial state? How does land theft continue to impact tribal communities? What methods can we use to end institutional racism and lasting colonial mechanisms that govern our societal systems? Drawing upon these discussions and creative visioning, the series will conclude with a collaborative public art installation.
Through this series, artists and audiences will consider how to address Indigenous peoples’ ongoing invisibility in the public sphere through art and the creative process and generate momentum to increase understanding and build relationships that can bring about vital transformational change.
Erin Genia, Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, is a multidisciplinary artist, educator, and organizer, whose practice merges cultural imperatives, pure expression, and material exploration with the conceptual. She seeks to create a powerful presence of Indigeneity in the arts, sciences, and public realm to invoke an evolution of thought and practice that is aligned with the cycles of the natural world and the potential of humanity.
Genia earned an M.S, in Art, Culture and Technology from MIT, an M.P.A. in Tribal Governance from The Evergreen State College, and studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She was awarded the 2019 MIT Solve Indigenous Communities Fellowship. She received her first public art commission for “Resilience: Anpa O Wicahnpi” from the City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture in 2017. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, most recently at the Urbano Project, the Venice Biennale and the International Space Station. Erin is a 2020 Artist-in-Residence for the City of Boston.
This blog post is part of a collaborative series: Centering Justice: Indigenous Artists’ Perspectives on Public Art. To learn more about this series and an upcoming virtual symposium and public art project, visit nefa.org/CenteringJustice.
This essay is reposted in it’s entirety with the permission of Erin Genia.