“As a birthplace of agriculture and the towns and cities that followed, America is ancient, not a “new world.”
– Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States
“Unwalking” has always been an integral component of my own practice. The role of contemporary artist is increasingly unraveler and challenger of prevailing views. Last week I found myself with a Signal Fire group in and around the Klamath river basin. The Klamath Mountains are “an exceptionally rich storehouse of evolutionary stories, one of the rare places where past and present have not been severed as sharply as in most of North America, where glaciation, desertification, urbanization and other ecological upheavals have been muted by a combination of rugged terrain and relatively benign climate.” (- David Rains Wallace The Klamath Knot) As such the area contains a fascinating epistemology, where the creation and maintenance of knowledge and myths are continually contested, a locus of ecology, humanity and history. In short, the Klamath is perfect place for a journey framed by critical inquiry, for an “unwalking”, to use Signal Fire’s neologism.
Over the last few years I worked to create possibilities for artists in the Cincinnati, OH area. In an urban environment I had the pleasure of being embedded with a group of creative people with whom I curated exhibitions in unconventional spaces, executed public art projects, ran galleries, etc. I finally feel (in large part through my participation in a Signal Fire trip) as though I have finally made some connections out here in the Northwest, both to an artist community and the land. There are strong reasons young professionals and–I daresay–“hipsters” are moving to places like Seattle and Portland. As the last area of the country to be invaded by Europeans, individuals in the Northwest tend to more strongly reject the extraction logic that pervades the industrial midwest. Furthermore, there are more acres under federal protection, urban spaces and wildernesses exist in unlikely proximity, there’s a stronger (or more palpable) Native American presence. And there’s great coffee.
Our second guide, Ka’ila Farrell‐Smith, is of Modoc decent. Sharing a visit to her ancestral homeland was especially important for me, in part because her presence and insights helped to add a level of intimacy and gravitas to stories that are often presented as Wild West fantasy. The National Park Service, through its mastery of engaging interpretative signage, is great at relaying the drama of history as distant past; unfortunately this expertise sometimes results in severing of narratives that extend into the present.
We also spent an afternoon with contemporary artist Natalie Ball, who is Modoc (Natalie is winning everything right now and beginning graduate school at Yale in the fall). I am confident I was in the presence of a rising art star, if there is such a thing. She told me she moved back to the site of the former Modoc reservation and had two kids there as “an act of resistance”. The idea that having kids could be an act of resistance has really stuck with me, a stark reminder that my own privilege permeates every aspect of my existence, from having kids to where I chose to live.
Many are surprised to learn of the recentness of the egregious injustices that Native Americans have faced. (white people, I can feel your eyes glossing over. Swallow your privilege and read on! We can do it!). Natives are often painted as the “vanishing race”, once living in tee-pees but now nonexistent. The vanishing race narrative creates conceptual cover enabling governments and citizens to ignore–or more often willfully eliminate—the rights of native peoples by rejecting their present-day concerns and even their claims to existence. The United States official policy of termination was implemented in the 1950’s and sought to eliminate the remaining American reservations by forcefully assimilating natives across the country (yes, that’s actually the word used: termination). In 1954, the Klamath Tribes, including the Modoc, were terminated. This policy was not formally abandoned until 1988, leaving countless tribes today still seeking some recognition (or more accurately re-recognition) and accompanying rights from the federal government. This process is known as restoration.
Fortunately the Klamath Tribes achieved restoration in 1986 and began to “develop a full scope of programs which provide necessary services to Tribal members and the community.” (klamathtribes.org) But water rights, land rights and other challenges remain. Central to the Klamath Tribes fight is the removal of dams along the Klamath river, which currently prevent the salmon from swimming their ancient journey upstream. A great many expensive studies have been carried out by western scientists in the last few years, and the results are in: fish need water! After some years of ignoring the issue and some bizarre solutions (such as fish canons that shoot the fish upstream), the dams on the Klamath are finally scheduled to be removed. It is impossible to understate the importance of salmon in the hearts of Klamath peoples where myth, ecology, economy and history are intertwined.
I have never (and probably will never) describe my creative methodology as “social practice”, a term that contemporary artists now frequently use to indicate that an art practice is a form of social engagement, community engagement, social justice, etc.). Perhaps there is some truth to the claim that the art world has become too insular and too self-congratulatory–only in a blatantly anti-social contemporary art world could the term social practice gain traction. But art is intrinsically social. We need not reject static media in order to embrace social commentary or community engagement. Lest I fall further into a rabbit hole of semantics, all of this is to say that like most artists, I do aspire to create socially relevant work. I generally do so by dealing with ideas about social knowledge itself.
I recently heard the election-year political landscape described as “post-truth”. Like many others I find myself yearning for approaches to knowing and learning that can transcend the truthiness of contemporary media and social media discourse.
Indigenous Knowledge represents the accumulated experience, wisdom and know-how unique to cultures, societies, and/or communities of people, living in an intimate relationship of balance and harmony with their local environments. These cultures have roots that extend into history beyond the advent of colonialism. They stand apart as distinctive bodies of knowledge, which have evolved over many generations with their particular ecosystem, and define the social and natural relationships with those environments. They are based within their own philosophical and cognitive system, and serve as the basis for community-level decision making in areas pertaining to governance, food security, human and animal health, childhood, development and education, natural resource management, and other vital socio-economic activities.”
– The Canadian International Development Agency’s definition of Indigenous Knowledge (as quoted by Priscilla Settee’s in an essay Indigenous Knowledge as the Basis for Our Future).
Knowledge is not neutral. This is a proposition that, although true, has splintered groups into dangerously ideological factions (see Karl Manheim’s Ideology & Utopia). The long project of enlightenment rationalism and western imperialism bears out a tough truth: western knowledge is created and groomed in such a way as to advance the rights of some and diminish the rights of others. Despite our brilliant insights into the nature of the universe, knowing in the western tradition continues to fail to engender support for the most basic tenets of environmental stewardship and social harmony. As the prospect of global climate catastrophe approaches inevitability, perhaps we should look more closely at the wisdom of the ancients, so often common-sense principles that came so naturally to native peoples. In this may we find a call, not for westward expansion but for contraction. Not for extraction but for restoration.