“We are in crisis,” intones the indigenous artist collective WINTER COUNT in a video of the same title. A drone pans over the Oceti Sakowin camp formerly at Standing Rock. Roads and construction scar the treaty landscape, its flowing water shaded by oil derricks. The 2016 footage has taken on an elegiac tone; today, the completed Dakota Access pipeline is leaking. Several states over, the governor of Utah has passed a resolution to undo protections to the sacred Bear Ears National Monument. Closer to home, the federally unrecognized Ramapough Lunaape Nation is being sued by a New Jersey township to evict a prayer camp. And the Trump administration just proposed to open the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to oil drilling. This crisis of land exploitation is ongoing, and the subject of the group show My Country Tis of Thy People, You’re Dying, curated by Erin Joyce at Radiator Arts and closing today. The beast of industry is cunning, WINTER COUNT’s video says, and the indigenous artists on display grapple with its many long limbs and the impact of resource extraction in the contest over land and sovereign rights.
Visitors are greeted by a black ceramic buffalo skull, “At What Cost, Extraction” (2016), by Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan / Hidatsa / Arikara / Lakota), a member of WINTER COUNT. Its visage peers out beneath a messy mane of black fiber, dark glaze dripping from its empty eye sockets like tears, with steel horns wrapped in felt and rubber tire. The buffalo is remade in the oil industry’s image and thematically it echoes a piece across town in the National Museum of the American Indian’s Native Fashion Now exhibition, where a jet-black vinyl three hide-style dress by Wendy Red Star is backed by dripping petroleum buffalo silhouettes designed by Terrance Houle. Luger’s masterful handling of ceramic, though, is a pleasure to (be)hold; nearby, his “Ceramic Knives” (2016) are meant to be held, the fragility of their material belied by their weight and surface quality, which evokes flint blades and bone or antler handles. Their designs are influenced by tools used at Standing Rock and for his own everyday work, the clay taken directly from the earth.
In the Southwest, the harvesting of such clay from protected local sources is a form of prayer for many indigenous potters, and in comparison invasive strip mining is seen as an act of desecration. Steven Yazzie’s (Navajo) single-channel video “Mountain Song” (2015) confronts the impact of such sacrilege to the land through an exploration of uranium extraction on Navajo Nation territory. Forested mountains drained of color shift into the tan palette of the desert, which, overlaid with Apollo mission transmissions, evokes the lifelessness of a moonscape. The video captures the interconnectedness of landscape and community; scored hillsides cut into lingering shots of a couple at the kitchen sink, water running, the contamination from mining runoff a part of their lived reality.
The land is reduced to digital plastic in the photo series North American Landscape (2013) by Tom Jones (Ho Chunk), in which the landscape genre is transmuted to petrochemical-based still lifes. Jones represents 16 indigenous landscapes (Hopi, Seminole, etc.) with children’s toys of trees, plants, and stumps. “Contemporary beautification” is what his father called deforestation on drives through sparse Native territories, and each photograph was digitally printed from the 3D scan of an individual plastic figure. The trees, isolated and floating in inky black space, are thus doubly removed from the landscape through the extractive process from which plastic is derived and the dematerialization of the scan. The series presents a digital, indigenous, micro-ecology, a complex operation rarely considered in critical discussions of Native art, where observers tend to favor materiality that is more easily legible as “traditional.”
Across from Jones’s photographs, on a wall of dark forest green, hangs Nicholas Galanin’s (Tlingit / Aleut) “God Complex” (2016), a cruciform of white porcelain body armor. Riot gear meets Stormtrooper in what at first glance is a straightforward commentary on police militarization in the service of extractive industry and white savior-martyr narratives. The suit’s opalescent glaze is like an oil slick coating the porcelain’s surface, a reminder of how fragile and empty white ideology was nonetheless put to devastating effect when the state was deployed to crush a path through the sacred Lakota landscape for the DAPL snake.
Yet to push past Galanin’s work as simply a representation of whiteness (a typical tactic of an older generation represented by Jimmie Durham) is to tease open the piece’s ambiguities. Body armor was employed not just by the militarized police at Standing Rock, but also by water protectors who realized they were facing body-threatening assault from rubber bullets and tear-gas canisters.The figure here looks toward a baton hanging just out of reach rather than clenching and raising it; is there a choice to be made about the violent oppression at hand, or perhaps an implicit resistance? The protective spiritual properties of shiny shell and water were mimicked in Luger’s “Mirror Shield” (2016) project at Standing Rock and can be found in Galanin’s ceramic’s gleam. And Christian imagery and rituals have long been adopted and used to indigenous ends for expressing genuine beliefs or to disguise outlawed religious and cultural practices — in the 19th century, the Tlingit appropriated Russian Orthodox crucifixes as jewelry, amulets, and status symbols.
Who is actually on the cross, in this case? It seems that “God Complex” subtly points to how, in the fight for environmental protections, indigenous activists often become savior, martyr, victim, and terrorist, all rolled into one and thrown on the cross. Against this tendency, Joyce’s exhibition — despite perhaps over-romanticizing the indigenous “spiritual and mystical connection with the land” in its text — does not present these Native artists as environmental saviors, but rather emphasizes their probing inquiries into contested landscapes.
The show’s title is a reference to the tragic Buffy Saint Marie song of the same name, in which she sings: “The white nation fattens while others grow lean / Oh the tricked and evicted they know what I mean / My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying.” The Lakota name for non-Native, wašíču, means “greedy person who takes the fat,” and the artists here join Saint Marie in contesting such unabashed gorging on indigenous lands — indeed, all lands — that continues apace.