Artist Nicholas Galanin holds up a piece of art
Artist Nicholas Galanin. This image was taken by Ben Huff for the New York Times.

Isabel Smith ’24 (She/Her), Staff Writer

Nicholas Galanin did not begin his talk at Davidson College with esoteric and abstract metaphors, but rather with a collection of photographs from his life in his hometown of Sitka, Alaska — images of fishing, various projects he’s working on, like a dugout canoe he is carving with his uncle and cousin, the community, and wildlife. By beginning with these pictures, he underscored how one’s practice of art exists in the everyday and is tied to our connection to the earth: a profound reminder. Galanin, a Tlingit and Unangax Indigenous artist, creates art that pulls from both contemporary Western art and Indigenous art practices. His exhibition, Dreaming in English, is available for view in the Van Every/Smith Galleries from now until December 9, 2021. The artist talk was October 20th, where Galanin joined us via Zoom to speak with Lia Newman, the curator of the Van Every/Smith Galleries, Dr. Rose Stremlau, a Davidson history professor specializing in the Indigenous South, and Catawba artist and storyteller Deslesslin “Roo” George-Warren. 

Galanin emphasized the Indigenous relationship to the land and how imperative it is to care for land in the same way as art, language, and culture. Acknowledging the land is understanding the process of surviving. European colonialism creates a strict linear narrative of time and separates people from their link to the earth. Galanin rejects both of these ideas. He believes in a “muscle memory of harvesting the land,” a memory of ancestors, and the “deep connections of joy that pass through us as part of a continuum,” which all fight together to be seen and heard and trusted. Dreaming in English is borne from those memories and relationships. 

When you walk into the Dreaming in English exhibition, the first thing you notice are the beds sitting in the center of the room. I work for the gallery. I watch visitors come in and out of the exhibition, and they ask me, “are the beds a part of it or are you just storing them here?” These reactions to the seemingly awkward staging of the beds mirrors their purpose. They represent the “forced removal and relocation of Indigenous children from the reservation into residential ‘schools’” which imposed assimilation and “[eradicated] both culture and spirit,” explained Newman. The beds are symbols of the isolation these children likely felt, especially at night; during the artist talk, Galanin contemplated their experience of staring at the ceiling on stiff beds in the evenings, ripped from their families. What could they have been thinking about? Did they dream in their native language, or were they now being forced to speak, and even to dream, in English?

These violent histories are not separate from Davidson College. Dr. Stremlau focuses on the Indigenous South, as well as gender and sexuality, families and kinship, and sexual violence in American History. During the artist talk, she outlined Davidson’s relationship to enslavement and the colonization of the Carolinas. She explained that throughout the 18th century, the American colonies orchestrated “a series of brutal scorched earth wars” to eradicate Indigenous peoples from North and South Carolina. William Lee Davidson II, who would later found Davidson, almost certainly participated in these attacks, as most white men with property of the time did. Ongoing research suggests that Davidson’s founding families were also directly involved in land fraud against the Catawba people. This desire to force out Native peoples only intensified in the infamous Jacksonian era, culminating in the Indian Removal Act and Trail of Tears. Andrew Jackson became the first Presbyterian president in 1829, and in 1837, Davidson College, a Presbyterian school, was established. In 1840, South Carolina ratified the fraudulent Treaty of Nation Ford with the Catawba, through which they ceded their remaining land in the Carolinas. During the 1850s, the presidential house of Davidson was situated on the land where the Visual Arts Center is currently located. Enslaved people worked in that house; they labored on that land. Though Davidson can never rectify these evils, working in community with the Catawba nation is progress.

This work will manifest through Galanin’s outdoor installation, “Unshadowed Land,” which will be located on the lawn of the Visual Arts Center—ground tainted with memories of injustice and harm. It is a place corrupted by the forced removal of Indigenous people and enslavement of Native Africans. Their shadows haunt Davidson, and this project will serve as a rebirth of the land, unearthing its buried history and bringing it back to its pre-colonization roots.

So what will “Unshadowed Land” entail? It is a long-term project which begins this fall. A silhouette of the statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square, Washington D.C. will be mapped out and dug into the ground, connoting his burial. This excavation will create a space for traditional Catawba corn to be planted there next spring. George-Warren said this project is a direct reference to resilience: the fight for subsistence rights, clean water, access to land, and food sovereignty. George-Warren, whose Instagram bio calls themself a “queer catawba guy getting angry and making stuff,” explained the significance of Catawba corn. The Catawba people cultivated it for thousands of years; It formed the basis of their diet and acted almost as “their language,” George-Warren said. The seeds were lost to time due to colonization and forced assimilation, but, after a lot of searching, were reintroduced in 2018. Their recovery helped revive knowledge about how Catawba ancestors grew corn and lived on the land. Catawba corn does not require irrigation. Rainwater is sufficient: “the land itself takes care of it.”

Next fall, the Davidson College community will work in partnership with the Catawba Nation to harvest the corn together and return some of the corn to them, supporting the aims of the Catawba’s seed reclamation and food autonomy. The panelists of the artist talk were asked about their hopes for this project. George-Warren expressed goals of creating a healthier, mutually beneficial relationship between the Catawba and Davidson. They talked about the recent popularity of the “landback” campaign, which seeks to bring control of the land back to Indigenous peoples; according to LANDBACK, it is reclaiming all that has been stolen and moving towards Indigenous liberation. George-Warren explained that the objective is not just a physical transfer of land and property titles, but also a reevaluation of how we as people engage with the land. It is being one with the land; it is growing food sustainably; it is listening to the land, relearning from it. Though it is impossible to state just how much has been taken from Native peoples, as George-Warren said, there is a responsibility to “reweave what is left into a basket that can hold future generations.” Galanin’s project, in collaboration with the Catawba people and Davidson, is environmental activism, a celebration of Indigenous resilience, and respect and kinship with the land that sustains all of us. It’s dreaming in English as a consequence of everything that’s been taken and everything that’s been lost.

Information on how to get involved will be available soon on the Van Every/Smith Gallery website and Instagram. In the fall and spring semesters of 2022, students will be able to take courses that engage with this project in several departments, including Environmental Studies and History.

Isabel Smith ‘24 (she/her) is an undecided major from St. Augustine, Florida. She can be reached for comment at issmith@davidson.edu.