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Lansing and Three Fires Territory: Toward an Activist-Based Indigenous Neo-Regionalism

Let me be honest. The radical arts infrastructure in Michigan, much like its present economic state, has faced better days. When I left the state nearly a decade ago, I never intended to make my way back to Michigan. As someone who was born and raised in rural areas of the state, while also studying art at both the College for Creative Studies (Detroit) and Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo), it didn‘t take long for me to realize that the opportunities to become actively involved in contemporary arts practice were dismal, similar to the fate faced by the rest of Michigan‘s working-class. I left Michigan in 2000, intending to only return for holidays and family vacations.

Like many of my contemporaries, I considered the once vibrant cultural scene of mid-twentieth century Michigan, so intimately connected with working-class and union activism, as having little to offer artist-activists in the late-1990s and early 2000s. While I remain unconvinced about the state‘s radical cultural infrastructure, my recent return to Michigan has nonetheless sparked my desire to uncover what it is we have in the state and how we may better connect ourselves in a rhizomatic network capable of operating without large infrastructural support. If fact, this heterodox thinking was key to my desire to return to the Great Lakes State and reconnect with the people and communities that remain so central to my art-making practice.

My interest in galleries is connected with my interest in radical pedagogy: seeing the gallery as a site where “teaching moments” are produced.

As a member of Justseeds, a decentralized artists‘ collective of approximately twenty print-based artists, my art-making practice is one that operates, by and large, outside of the dominant gallery system. While I do not eschew participation in the gallery system, my interest in galleries is connected with my interest in radical pedagogy: seeing the gallery as a site where “teaching moments” are produced. Like my collective-mates in Justseeds, I am interested in making art that functions prominently within movements of social justice, whatever form this visual language may develop.

While preparing for a recent lecture at the University of Arizona, I recognized that there are four fundamental components to my work as an artist: teaching, object-making, intellectual labor, and activism. While intimately interconnected, these four distinct modes of working each connect seamlessly in the quotidian expressions of my daily life. As such, and I hope that many of you also feel this way as well, there is no visible separation between my work as an “artist” and my work as a “professor,” not to mention the lack of distance between my “activism” and “scholarship.” The various ways that these categories connect with one another are what prove so dynamic and exciting about being an artist in the current economic climate in Michigan.

The presumed distance that many are forced to choose, segregating their various modes of creative production, must be disassembled in hopes of maintaining an active and creative existence in a region without a viable art market. While the state‘s creative infrastructure continues to erode beneath our feet, the alternative potentialities continue to grow. Since artists have historically, at least with the rise of modernism, grown accustomed to living economically marginalized lives, the opportunity that artists may offer local communities is tremendous, even if it doesn‘t coalesce the capitalist ideologies embedded in Richard Florida‘s notion of the creative class.

While mainstream art institutions face economic constraints due to large-scale governmental budget cuts, grass roots and tribal institutions have grown accustomed to working with little or no money; they remain somewhat isolated from the impending budget cuts awaiting arts programming in the state. According to one newspaper article, state funding for the arts could decrease from $7.7 million in 2008 to its current allocation of $6.1 million to a proposed $1 million in 2010. As if these frightening figures are not enough, in July, Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm signed an executive order eliminating the Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries.

While the economic logic of cutting essential cultural services is unconvincing, the implications on the cultural life of the state are terrifying. What these recent and impending cuts signify for the state‘s arts infrastructure have yet to be determined, but their presence is already being felt. Thankfully, Michiganders have grown accustomed to using grass roots strategies to get things done. After all, this state is a virtual archive of local histories where common citizens have collectively contested the dominant logic of capitalism that many of us have grown accustomed to. Maybe we need to be reminded of the various resistant practices that have transpired within the state: Flint is the birthplace of the modern strike; Port Huron gave us Students for a Democratic Society; punk rock and techno are both indigenous to Detroit; the working-class intellectualism of James and Grace Lee Boggs remains fruitful; not to mention how the Anishinaabeg have now actively resisted three consecutive imperial powers in their ongoing struggles for self-determination. These are, of course, only a few of examples of everyday people standing up against empire.

With all of these amazing histories, often unknown or ignored, Michigan offers a wealth of oppositional material that I have been able to draw from in my own work. In economic times like these, we must all use these examples as sources within our practice. As a child, I dreamt of escaping the Winter Wonderland and seeking greater prospects in a warmer and more prosperous environment. However after nearly a decade away, I have decided to allow my roots to reconnect with the state‘s rich soil. I hope to engage in existing endeavors and help develop new fertile and exciting projects. Following my participation last spring in What We Want! Artists‘ Retreat at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Chicago, I began to wonder why Detroit or Grand Rapids (or Mid-Michigan for that matter) had not developed the radical sense of community that exists in cultural epicenters like Chicago. Although I cannot easily explain why Chicagoans have created such strong alternative arts infrastructures, I am reasonably convinced that we can do the same in Lansing, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Flint or rural areas in the state. Although these networks may not be quite as robust or fully developed as our cousins in the Windy City, I believe that there exist many exciting projects throughout the state that haven‘t been adequately documented or networked in the same way that you see with those artists involved in Chicago-based activities. It is my hope that with this essay, those of us involved in radical Michigan-based projects can better integrate ourselves into a network that works collectively across both time and space.

Since Michigan will never be an artistic center, I believe that we must accept our marginality and engage in a unique artistic practice that looks absolutely nothing like the capitalist-oriented market-based practices we see elsewhere.

Since Michigan will never be an artistic center, I believe that we must accept our marginality and engage in a unique artistic practice that looks absolutely nothing like the capitalist-oriented market-based practices we see elsewhere. It is for this reason that some of the most exciting local undertakings are those that are not uniquely artistic, but instead are predominantly activist in orientation. For instance, many Anishinaabeg communities are engaged in stimulating ecological, cultural, and language-based projects. Protectors of the Earth, headed by the efforts of Bucko Teeple, operates out of Bawaating (the French renamed it Sault Ste. Marie) and works on ecological issues from an Indigenous perspective. Through the work of Lansing-area Anishinaabeg activists Don Lyons and Ahz Teeple, Protectors of the Earth has partnered with the Aboriginal Australian Traditional Knowledge Revival Pathways (TKRP) to document local Indigenous knowledge by way of digital video and audio recording. The material is then placed into a community-based digital archive where it may be used for the common good. Working with community members, these projects place the future of local knowledge in the hands of the community.

Along these lines, I have also been working with Lyons and Ahz Teeple on the Urban Anishinaabeg Oral History Project (UAOHP). Established this summer as a university course, UAOHP conducts bi-weekly dialogues with Lansing area Anishinaabemowin speakers by discussing everything from labor, to sports, to family and politics. Since nearly all of the fluent Anishinaabemowin speakers moved to Lansing from Manitoulin Island, Ontario to work in the automotive industry, their thoughts on the current economic and ecological crises are poignant and timely. These oral histories will eventually be used to form the basis of a grass roots publication and in a touring exhibition. Another important project is the Anishinaabeg Joint Commission, a cross-border initiative dealing with international water issues that neither the US nor Canada have adequately addressed. Together, these projects demonstrate the potential of place-based Native activism to radically transform the ecological future of Michigan and the Great Lakes basin.

Moreover, tribal entities have recently developed a sustainable infrastructure for language maintenance programs and community museums. The Saginaw Chippewa have a remarkable cultural center, directly across the street from their Mt. Pleasant casino, called the Ziibiwing Center. The center includes a permanent exhibition that addresses Anishinaabeg history from the perspective of the Saginaw Chippewa. In addition, Ziibiwing has an art gallery which hosts traveling and rotating exhibitions, having recently exhibited photographs of the American Indian Movement and an impressive retrospective of Native beadwork. The Saginaw Chippewa also maintain a tribal college that is actively engaged in teaching Anishinaabemowin. Its instructor, George Roy, is one of the participants in the Urban Anishinaabeg Oral History Project. Further north, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians recently opened a tribal museum, Eyaawing Museum and Cultural Center. Bay Mills Indian Community, located near Baawaating, also have a vibrant Anishinaabemowin program at Bay Mills Community College, while Michigan State University and the University of Michigan also instruct the language.

The Nokomis Learning Center and the Woodlands Indian Community Center, both in metropolitan Lansing, face harsh futures with the lack of grants to fund their projects. Nokomis, although small, has both an interpretive center and an art gallery. The gallery has featured work by artists such as Dave Shannanaquat, known for his efforts on the pow-wow circuit, while they also hosted my exhibition “Otepaymisiwak: The People Without Bosses.” Recently, Becky Roy, Ashley Harding and Estrella Torrez have begun working with the public schools to develop an Indigenous curriculum geared toward urban Indians. Last summer, Roy headed an urban cultural program where Native students learned traditional cultural practices, art-making, and language skills, all of which are vital to the future of disenfranchised urban communities.

The Xicano Development Center, a Mexican-American and Indigenous organizing project, has developed a forceful array of projects. As a board member of this non-profit, we are presently coordinating a conference on direct action and democracy, particularly as they relate to the Native and Latino communities in Michigan. The conference will feature a keynote speech by Ward Churchill (a figure that bifurcates Indian Country, as many feel he is non-Native) and a performance by the Bronx-based rap group Rebel Díaz.

We are beginning to lay the foundation for what I envision as a place-based, neo-regionalism that has emerged from the ashes of the state‘s industrial history.

There are some specific Lansing-based arts programming and projects that deserve mention. Basement 414 organizes itinerant exhibitions and concerts in downtown Lansing. LookOut! Gallery, located in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) at Michigan State University (where I teach), hosts an array of exhibitions, from local artists and student work, to large-scale curated shows. Last spring, I co-curated an exhibition on activist art from Oaxaca, Mexico, focusing on street art and photography. Cheyenne-Arapaho artist Edgar Heap of Birds was also in residence for two weeks at RCAH, while installing a “Native Hosts” intervention and working with students. While the installation had a nice long run, four signs recently disappeared during Homecoming weekend. Across from campus, Scene MetroSpace is a gallery that has arranged some interesting exhibitions, even if not focused entirely on interventionist or activist work.

While this essay began as a lament on my return to Michigan, the writing process has become therapeutic in its ability to help me recognize the multiple projects currently circulating around the Lansing metropolitan area, as well as within Three Fires Territory as a whole. Through these various projects, it seems that alongside other artists, activists, and intellectuals, we are beginning to lay the foundation for what I envision as a place-based, neo-regionalism that has emerged from the ashes of the state‘s industrial history and is intimately tied to the precious ecology of our rural and semi-urban communities. In the vein of the Industrial Workers of the World, both Native and non-Native activists are “forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.” I hope to be a part of this.

Dylan Miner ( is an art historian by training, Miner is Assistant Professor of Transcultural Studies in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, where he also holds appointments in American Indian and Chicano/Latino studies. An Indigenous studies scholar, Miner has published numerous articles and chapters, contributed several encyclopedia entries, and has written for Indigenous and Latina/o community newspapers. In spring 2010, he will present three solo exhibitions focusing on the radical tradition of the Great Lakes. He is Michif (Métis), active in the Justseeds Collective, and lives in Three Fires Territory with his partner and two daughters.

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