Michelson visits the Grand River at Six Nations Reserve, in southern Ontario, several times a year, where a younger sister and other relatives now live and where his grandparents grew up. Narratives of colonial subjugation and Indigenous survival form the backbone of some of his most powerful work.
His “Two Row II” (2005), a monumental video piece, is based on the Kaswentha, a sacred wampum belt that embodied a 1613 trade agreement between his people and the Dutch. Michelson filmed from a Canadian cruise boat on the Grand River, separating non-Native towns on the U.S. side from the Reserve in southern Ontario. The piece captures the competing narratives from both sides of the river: the dinner cruise captain’s guided tour amid clinking silverware is juxtaposed with a soundtrack of Native elders talking about the river.
The brutal military campaign that forced the removal of Michelson’s ancestors from their homelands was captured in his video work “Hanödaga:yas,” or “Town Destroyer,” the name the Haudenosaunee gave George Washington. It chronicles the destruction of some 50 towns, farms and orchards that led to “a situation of being a refugee in our own land,” the artist said. The 2018 piece debuted at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ontario. The center is on the site of the former Mohawk Indian Residential School, the boarding school that his grandmother Eleanor Green, who died two years ago at age 105, was made to attend and where she was trained to be a domestic, the occupation deemed suitable for an Indigenous woman.
In thinking about oyster shells, Michelson reflected on the cultural history of shells in Native art, from abalone jewelry to wampum belts used for diplomacy and incorporating hundreds of tiny shells. All express the Indigenous worldview is that “time and memory are embodied in something that had been alive,” he said, in contrast to the European idea that “everything alive is extractable.” “I think they missed a lot,” he added. “They weren’t very curious or interested in what was here and dismissed the cultures living in pretty good balance with the land and waters. It’s a way of living with. It’s understanding yourself as being in a kinship relationship with something larger rather than one of separation and dominion.”
The Billion Oyster Project is a cause for hope, he said, albeit as a reparative undertaking that he argues would not have been necessary under Lenape stewardship.
In recent years, tribes have been on the front lines of environmental activism, most famously in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline and the risks it posed to water, land and sacred cultural sites. With wildfires raging out West, some government officials have begun partnering with tribes, acknowledging the wisdom of regular controlled burns to clear out underbrush and encourage new plant growth.
“It has to be people understanding how the dots connect,” Michelson said. “I think things are so bad that they’re turning back to us.”
Greater New York
Oct. 7 through April 18, MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Ave., Queens; (718) 784-2084; moma.org. Entry to MoMA PS1 is by advance timed ticket.