In Minnesota—the land of 10,000 lakes—artist-activists dive into water’s critical role in health, healing, equity, and historical reckoning.
Every day, artists and activists are shining a light on critical water justice issues we face on local and global levels. They’re calling attention not only to the environment, but also to the ways water separates us socially and culturally. Because water justice isn’t just about fighting contamination and getting politicians to address climate change; it’s about equal access and safety, too.
Water is central to the identity of Minnesota, home to Anishinaabe and Dakota people; “Minnesota” is derived from the Dakota name MniSota Makoce, which means “the place where the water reflects the clouds.” With 11,842 lakes, 6,564 natural rivers and streams, and 10.6 million acres of steadily decreasing wetlands, the state is also home to one of the country’s most engaged communities of artists, builders, and organizers.
In the next several pages we look at how several artist-activists in Minnesota explore water and employ a wide and shifting range of media, approaches, and tactics to address global challenges and carry forward cultural work aimed at right relationship.
Mining and Women’s Lives
Shanai Matteson is an artist and cultural organizer born and raised in Northern Minnesota near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. She is collaborative director of the Water Bar & Public Studio. Her current project Overburden/Overlook, with Macalester College sociologist Roopali Phadke, delves into the environmental and social risks associated with mining.
The project involves pop-up art-making workshops for women on Minnesota’s Iron Range in which they’re encouraged to share stories about their lives, their work, and their relationships to water. It also focuses on relationship and network building and features a mobile “overlook” where people can share stories. Many stories will become part of a traveling exhibition. It’s a complex, multi-year project that also naturally raises conversations about issues like the effects of deforestation, the displacement of Indigenous people, racism, and pollution.
The project will culminate with a public art tour and literary work in 2020–2021. The ultimate goal of the project is to “demonstrate the ways that women and women’s leadership can transform conflict, build powerful coalitions, and heal relationships that have been broken by economic exploitation and political division.”
Take a quick look at the history of a public place—specifically how its Indigenous name changed to one given by European immigrants—and you’ll get an instant picture of Native dispossession. In Minneapolis, for example, Bde Maka Ska, a Dakota name meaning White Earth Lake, was changed about 200 years ago to Lake Calhoun, after U.S. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, author of the Indian Removal Act.
It was a significant moment in 2018 when the city officially changed the name of the lake back to Bde Maka Ska. Then in 2019, the City of Minneapolis Art in Public Places program opened a public gathering space along the lakeshore, called Zaníyaŋ Yutȟókča: Brave Change. It honors Dakota leader Maḣpiya Wicaṡṭa (Cloud Man) and the community Ḣeyata Ọtuŋwe (Village to the side) who inhabited this place in the 1830s.
Several artists were involved in creating Zaníyaŋ Yutȟókča. Angela Two Stars (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) produced pathway stamps of animals paired with their Dakota names in sidewalk squares. Sandy Spieler revealed some of the food grown on this site in the fence she designed. Mona Smith (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) offered deeper dives into history and Dakota culture and language through her films for the project.
You can see Mona Smith’s films at bdemakaska.net To learn about more indigenous place names across the country, search @indigenousgeotags.
Access for Every Body
The Subversive Sirens are an award-winning synchronized-swimming team that’s making space for a browner, queerer, and more body-positive presence within the aquatic arts. The group has garnered gold at the 2018 Gay Games in Paris and competed at World Pride’s 2019 International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics tourney in New York City.
Beyond taking home trophies, the Sirens have also developed “splash-mobs.” These pop-up community swims often take place in the shallow end of the pool or beside it, as newcomers learn and practice basic floating and swimming techniques. It’s not just about survival in the water, the Sirens insist, it’s also about aquatic joy and pleasure.
Minneapolis’s Phillips Aquatic Center is the practice hole for the Sirens. Although it isn’t Olympic sized, the community pool supports the swimmers by providing access to clean and clear water in which they can swim and be seen. This visibility is significant. “We are still so new in our acceptance of trans and gender non-conforming identities,” says Siren Jae Hyun Shim, who is non-binary.
Safety is important for gender non-conforming representation in aquatic arts, too. “Locker rooms, historically, [are] unwelcoming places” for gay, trans, and gender non-conforming kids, says Shim. So safe locker rooms—where team members can bond—are essential.
Tia-Simone Gardner, who lives in Minneapolis, is working on a series of site-specific installations that explore the American Black diaspora’s overlooked histories through examining waterways, colonialism, migration, and trade. She encourages deep reflection about land and water. As she recently said about relationships between the Mississippi and the Rio Grande: “These sites of power tell tales of militarized contact zones between settler colonizers and Indigenous land, of commodified bodies and enslavement.” Following is a sampling of her recent work.
Reading the River: Yemaya and Oshun is an experimental documentary looking at the relationship between Blackness and six sites along the Mississippi River: New Orleans, Natchez, Vicksburg, Memphis, St. Louis, Cairo, and St. Paul.
Salt Water, Sweet Water is a floating camera obscura project that includes a 208-square-foot live-work structure. It considers the relationship between large cities and small housing spaces—particularly temporary ones. Installed temporarily in Houston’s Buffalo Bayou in 2019, it will be launched in the Mississippi River in Minneapolis in 2020.
Working with photography, Gardner superimposed images of shipwrecked Clotilda, recently discovered in Alabama, onto images of water in New Orleans. The Clotilda was the last ship to carry enslaved people from Africa to the U.S.
Graci Horne is a visual artist, curator, poet, educator, and healer who emphasizes the sacredness of water, legacy, and intergenerational healing. She leads kinship flag making workshops in which participants are encouraged to think about their connection to land and water through their family histories. She’s projected her artwork—primarily mixed media and watercolor—at the Northern Spark festival. She’s currently in negotiations for her first mural project.
During the recent Hearts of Our People exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art—a groundbreaking showcase of art by Native women—Horne led a workshop in which younger Indigenous people had a chance to talk with elders about the long history of Native women and art.
Horne is the descendent of one of 38 Dakota men executed in Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26, 1862, in the aftermath of the Dakota War. To honor them, and the families left behind, she rides horseback during the annual Dakota Prayer Ride Water Walk & Run, which also honors water and missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Horne says she found her voice in 2016 when she joined protestors mobilized against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. There she and Rebecca Nagle ran a healing tent and worked on Monument Quilt, which addresses sexual violence, an experience all too common for Native women.
Black Women’s Health
Water quality and water access are primary concerns for Amoke Kubat as she hopes to mend rampant health disparities between White women and Black and Indigenous women.
Kubat has studied the relationship between dehydration and the onset of many diseases that plague Black women, including high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, and more. Increasing water intake may decrease or reverse these diseases, says Kubat, who designed a “mothering” artistic practice called YO MAMA!, which includes an art-based support group called The Art of Mothering Workshops.
This summer, Kubat and her YO MAMA! peers discussed their connection to water through motherhood at a Minnesota Public Radio event called The Water Main. Kubat leads many community conversations around water.
In 2015, she gathered people on a riverboat, which cruised the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, to share stories of African and African American river life. Kubat has been reclaiming her indigenous African roots. “In doing so I am strengthening my relationship to all living things and the planet we all need healthy to sustain us,” she says.
Kubat has also been leading workshops on water and on climate change preparation at the Water Bar in Minneapolis.