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Unseen Dimensions of Public Space: Disrupting Colonial Narratives

Issue 04 Critical Perspective

by Erin Genia

9 October 2019

Erin Genia, Resilience: Anpa O Wicahnpi / Dakota Pride Banner, Seattle Center, 2017. Photo by Erin Genia.

What is public space? It plays an essential role in the political and social life of America and occupies a revered place in our society’s collective imagination. In the pluralistic United States, it’s a site where people come together to work out pertinent democratic issues in a public setting. People depend on it for leisure, to gather and perform acts of collective culture. It is a shared space of commonality. What are its meanings when people do not share culture, or are oppressed by the existing legal and regulatory frameworks? It is experienced differently by people depending on where they fall in the socioeconomic hierarchy. While it can be a refuge for some, it is a place of danger for others. Indigenous people and people of color can be subject to safety risks in public places, such as racial profiling by law enforcement personnel. Native women and girls can become targets for violence due to their gender or race. The utopian ideal of the public commons masks its own origins as a product of genocide and ongoing settler occupation.

As a creative practitioner working in the public realm, I grapple with the disconnection between narratives surrounding public space and my reality as an Indigenous Dakota artist. In the Boston area and in other places around our country, these narratives are founded on principles that stem from settler-colonial notions of land ownership. Monuments and public art celebrating Boston’s colonial history cover up and justify the reality that all land in America, public and private, has been stolen from Indigenous nations, and that ethnic cleansing was a strategy for establishing this country. Without questioning these dimensions of public space and understanding the immense implications of this legacy, the artwork that inhabits it erases Indigenous peoples’ historical and contemporary presence on the land.

How can people interested in public art think critically about this legacy to make work that addresses these complexities and disrupt the disparities created by it? What role can artists working in the public sphere, architects building infrastructure in sensitive places, landscape architects contributing to ecosystems, media artists creating public interfaces, urban planners, and others play in acknowledging the history of place? What methods can we use to create urban areas, monuments, art, and built environments that are responsive to these issues?

Public space as a settler-colonial concept

The concept of public space, as currently practiced in the U.S., is aligned with outmoded values of institutions steeped in cultural supremacy and American exceptionalism. That vast cities and towns existed all over the continent prior to colonization contradicts the mythos that America was an empty and wild land, filled with a few scattered uncivilized and primitive tribes. To get a sense of the vastness and great diversity of people whose societies were targeted for erasure, consider that there are now over 570 federally recognized self-governing tribes in the U.S.

The traditional economies of Indigenous peoples across the land, which were based on ecological continuity, were destroyed through settler colonization, forcing dependence on capitalist economic institutions and welfare. Tribal homes in villages and towns, roads and highways, sacred spaces, and hunting and harvesting territories were co-opted and built over. This was made possible by corrupt legal practices that provided cover for land grabs for private land ownership, military bases, national parks, railroads, and agricultural, mining, manufacturing, and forestry industries. American treaty responsibilities to tribes, which are supposed to be the law of the land, have been marginalized and minimized. Knowledge of this history, which undergirds today’s political, social, and economic realities, is largely unknown. The lack of public education about it creates generational public ignorance.

Before colonization, Dakota people governed our land through intrinsic epistemologies of land and space, property, kinship, and relationship. The passage of the General Allotment Act of 1887 divided land held collectively by tribes into square plots of acreage deeded to individuals, selling the remaining acreage to settlers for a pittance. This era ushered in the period of coercive assimilation that included the catastrophic boarding school system. Christian reformers were among the main advocates of assimilation and allotment, which were “intended to force the tribes into an Anglo-American system of tenure and inheritance, which they believed would quickly assimilate the Indians [sic],” because “communal landholding hindered the Indians’ [sic] progress towards ‘civilization.’” (1) Through communal living, traditional religious and social practices were preserved; after allotment tight-knit communities were undermined and even destroyed.

Lillian Pitt, Welcome Gate at the Confluence Land Bridge in Vancouver, Washington, 2008. Photo courtesy of Confluence.

This forced assimilation of Indigenous people remains a powerful memory and a strong presence that colors how we perceive and experience public space. Where the land is carved up by private property, the dramatically altered landscapes and ecosystems, cities and roads, buildings, place names, and other infrastructure reinforce Western domination over Indigenous peoples for everyone
to see.

This power imbalance is palpable in the public sphere. Monuments, memorials, and public art that people interact with on a regular basis shape perspectives by presenting an erroneous, incomplete, romanticized, tragic, offensive, or entirely missing image of Native Americans to the public. This influences not only how tribal people are seen in society at large, but inevitably, public opinion. Public opinion leads to policy. The results of applying policy solutions based on public opinion tainted by misinformation has been devastating for tribes. A correlation exists between the level of public ignorance about Native Americans and the extent to which the dominant society is willing to exploit tribal people. Public ignorance about Indigenous people and a willingness to cast them as “other” has fueled the process of colonization and today paves the way for continued colonialist attitudes that are present in the popular discourses surrounding public space.

Indigenous peoples’ presence

This past spring, I conducted a workshop called “Monuments in Perspective” for the MIT School of Architecture and Planning’s 150th-anniversary “Experiments in Pedagogy” curriculum. (2) The purpose of the workshop was to probe hidden histories by highlighting the perspectives of Indigenous people. We considered questions such as: what pieces of human and natural history have been glorified or erased from a given location over time? What lies under a housing development, public park, parking lot, or high-rise? 

Over a weekend, we traveled to sites of significance to the Wampanoag, Nipmuk, Ponkapoag, and Massachusett peoples of this region. Tribal council member and culture-bearer Jonathan James-Perry (Aquinnah Wampanoag) led the group to several locations on Noepe/Martha’s Vineyard, including Manitouwattootan/Christiantown and the Aquinnah Cliffs, and gave the group a tour of a traditional wetu house he built. He also led our group to Solstice Rock and Plymouth Rock. At each location, he shared significant history and facts about the site. Jean-Luc Pierite (Tunica-Biloxi), president of the North American Indian Center of Boston, read aloud the “1675 Order of Removal by the Massachusetts Bay Colony,” which has had lasting impacts not only for tribal people of this region, but also for the settlement of America. He also discussed the work he is doing with NAICOB on repatriation and protection of local sacred sites.

“Monuments in Perspective” allowed our group to pursue an understanding of the land that is inclusive of the Indigenous peoples who live here and whose experiences are often erased. Critical discussion of historical legacies, public space, ethics of memory and the growing movement of Colonial and Confederate monument removal, and questions of site-specificity in public art and historic monuments took place.

Due to our unique location, history, and cultural and economic locus, how we express and disseminate ideas in the Boston area can have profound impacts on people in other places and spaces. As a result, our critical introspections and the actions we take on these issues must be reflective of the power of this place, and that begins with an understanding of the original peoples of this land.

Toma Villa, She Who Watches, 2019. Photos courtesy of Confluence by Woodrow Hunt.

Moving Forward

Public art, monuments, and historic markers that perpetuate defective views of Native American and Indigenous peoples are everywhere across America. Despite this reality, there is fertile ground for educating the public about Indigenous peoples through art and creating a strong Indigenous presence in these spaces that have historically excluded us.

There have been many movements within Western public art that have grappled with questions of monumentality and anti-monument status, memory, the confines of urban and architectural space, time-based public art production, performativity, and the environmental. Few have discussed how Indigenous peoples fit into these conversations.

One such endeavor is the Confluence Project, a public art effort spanning the length of the Columbia River, which divides Washington and Oregon. Designed by Maya Lin, the creator of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., its mission is to “connect people to the history, living cultures and ecology of the Columbia River system through Indigenous voices.”(3)  The project has collaborated with local tribes and Indigenous artists to create site-specific pieces in six locations using sculpture, landscape art, architectural elements, and educational initiatives to draw attention to features of the land and its original inhabitants. The Confluence Project is a unique consortium of public, nonprofit, local, and tribal organizations working together to reflect the region’s history, with Indigenous voices at the center. At the Vancouver land bridge location, artist Lillian Pitt (Warm Springs/Wasco) used petroglyph images to symbolize the site’s ancestral memory and a large sculptural canoe paddle to show the connection between the tribal people of the place and the water. In May of this year, Toma Villa (Yakama) created a powerful performative piece depicting the ancient petroglyph image Tsagaglal / She Who Watches at Columbia Hills State Park with a group of fourth graders who had taken part in a weeklong curriculum organized by the Confluence Project. (4)  Efforts to honor the original peoples of the land, correct the lack of public education, and inspire awareness about these issues can be strategically addressed through collaboration and a mix of methods, with public art as a central force.

In rethinking public commons as sites for dealing with the legacy of colonization and the current realities of injustice, author Craig Fortier asserts, “the struggle to reclaim the commons should thus give way to a process of decolonization that transforms settler relationships with the land, Indigenous peoples and with each other.”(5)  Within this context, the ethics of public space is an urgent concern, and Indigenous peoples’ perspectives must be respected and prioritized.

For Indigenous artists, working in the public realm is an opportunity to bring our distinctive world views to the forefront of discussions, which can have a wide impact on society. Interventions in the public arena by Indigenous artists create openings that can bring profound physical, psychological, and symbolic healing to colonized people and places.

In 2017, I was commissioned by the City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture to produce a site-specific work at Seattle Center. My piece, Resilience: Anpa O Wicahnpi, also known as Dakota Pride Banner, was created to honor the many Indigenous people, living in diasporas, who left their reservations for cities such as Seattle during the American Indian Relocation Program in the mid-twentieth century. The banner is a celebration of diversity within our tribal communities and in all communities. It activated the space through color and light, paying homage to urban Native people’s resilience through vibrant cultural expression.

Moving forward, some salient questions for consideration are: In what ways can we decolonize places? How can we use social, political, and natural history to create space for justice? It is the responsibility of all practitioners working in the public sphere to address these issues in their works, as they are fundamental to the land occupied, the resources used, and the people and living things affected. Our communities must do more to support the work of Indigenous artists and practitioners of all kinds, respect local, regional, national, and international tribes’ rights to self-determination and free prior informed consent, and learn about the importance of treaties. We must provide public opportunities to think deeply about our colonial past and present, to loosen the grip of our collective colonial approaches to the world that continue to hold sway over our ideas and actions. Beginning with the land we live on, we can all contribute to work that tells history truthfully, acknowledges the legacy of colonization, honors the cultural significance of Native American communities, and considers the underlying ecology of place.

1. Thomas W. Cowger, The National Congress of American Indians: The Founding Years. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 13.

2. http://act.mit.edu/news/2019/04/11/monuments-perspective-erin-genia/

3.  Confluence Project. “What is Confluence?” http://www.confluenceproject.org/about/

4. http://www.confluenceproject.org/library-post/she-who-watches-by-toma-villa-short-version/

5. Fortier, Craig. Unsettling the commons: social movements within, against, and beyond settler colonialism. Winnipeg: ARP Books, 2017.

Erin Genia, You Are On Native Land, 2019. Digital montage.

This essay was originally published in print in Issue 04: The Public Art Issue, Fall 2019.