In a transfixing two-minute video called “River (The Water Serpent)” in the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing we see a drone shot of a snow-flecked landscape where a crowd has gathered. Each of its members holds a vertical mirrored panel. Together, on cue, they place the panels horizontally over their heads, reflective side skyward, and begin a procession. At first, it’s loose and tidally pooling and eddying. Then it tightens into a stream of light, gains velocity, and spirals like a whirlpool.
The landscape is a stretch of prairie on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation spanning the border between North and South Dakota. The time of the filming was December 2016. The procession, conceived by two Native American artists, Cannupa Hanska Luger and Rory Wakemup, was a combined act of protest and preservation.
It was performed by some of the many hundreds of demonstrators who had come as “water protectors,” intent on halting the U.S. government’s plan to install a major oil pipeline near Black Rock, a move that could potentially poison the reservation’s water supply, and would certainly desecrate its ancestral cemeteries. The mirrored panels were shields designed to protect the protectors from resistance they’d meet and make their assaulters look hard at themselves.
The video is one of 40 works that make up “Water Memories,” a poetically faceted pocket-size show about the material and symbolic role of water in Native American life. Organized by Patricia Marroquin Norby (Purépecha), the Met’s associate curator of Native American art, it combines traditional objects from the permanent collection with modern and contemporary loan pieces, including some by non-Native artists.
A fleet of toylike 19th-century canoe models with origins from the Northwest coast to the Northeast woodlands establishes the bicoastal range of the show, and suggests the role of water as a medium for commercial and cultural networking. The equivalent of long-haul trucks, Native American boats transported raw materials and handcrafted trade products — baskets, ceramics, luxury beadwork — on riverine highways up and down and across what is now called North America.
Also transported were ideas about values and governance, about past and the future, about life in this world and others. Wisconsin-born Ho-Chunk artist Truman T. Lowe (1944-2019) paid tribute to the cosmopolitan nature of water travel in his 1993 “Feather Canoe,” an openwork boat made of willow branches and filled with white feathers. Suspended from the ceiling and illuminated from within, it projects patches of shadow and light onto the gallery floor.
Acquired by the Met last year, it’s a beautiful thing and seems to have had personal meaning for Lowe, a curator of contemporary art at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
“If I have a religion,” he said, “it must be canoeing. I canoe wherever there’s water. It puts me in a totally different state of mind and provides all I need to exist.”
A strip of ocean is visible in the background of a large, angsty-feeling 1989 triptych painting called “Possession on the Beach” by Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), an artist of one-quarter Luiseño descent who has been both admired and reviled for his popular “Indian” portraits. (He claimed that both critical responses were equally cool with him. He just wanted people to keep looking.--NYT