Water is the most intimate of all natural resources. We depend on and share our lives with water in its many forms—the soothing trickle of freshwater springs, meandering rivers, the rhythmic waves of a northern Great Lake, the thunderous roar of the ocean, and even debilitating droughts. Water reflects our emotions, awakens the senses, and excites imagination. Across the world, water conservation is a timely and urgent subject.
This exhibition explores water’s significance to Indigenous peoples and Nations in the United States through historical, modern, and contemporary artworks. In four thematic sections—Ancestral Connections, Water and Sky, Forests and Streams, and Oceanic Imaginations—diverse aquatic expressions feature both representational and abstract approaches.
The variety of items on view—protest fashion, hand-carved children’s toys, glass lamps, oil paintings, photographs, and video—create a current of memories belonging to Native American and non-Native artists. Throughout the exhibition, contemporary Indigenous community members provide individual interpretations and share their personal associations with water. The works collectively reveal how—across time and place—water provides nourishment, sanctuary, and healing while also activating protest, conflict, and complex dialogue.
Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, b. 1979)
River (The Water Serpent)
Oceti Sakowin, North Dakota, 2016
Cannupa Hanska Luger’s mirrored shield epitomizes the values of a Water Protector. Inspired by images of Ukrainian women holding up glass mirrors to riot police, the mirror shields were conceptualized using safe materials and first deployed at Standing Rock in November 2016 at the Oceti Sakowin Camp to stop Dakota Access Pipeline construction from crossing the Missouri River. Engaged here as a serpentine river of light, the shields are both art and defensive measure. Each shield protects against “nonlethal” police munitions—such as rubber bullets and truncheons—weaponized against Water Protectors. The reflective mirror is also defensive, aimed at showing police an image of themselves in hopes of reaching their humanity and making them less violent. The shields speak to a universal humanity grounded in Indigenous values: we all need water to live.
—Nick Estes (Kul Wicasa/Lower Brule Sioux Tribe)
On-site performance organized in collaboration with Rory Wakemup; morning prayer sung by the Oceti Sakowin main camp announcer; video courtesy of Ginger Dunnill and Cannupa Hanska Luger.