- “We All Stand Side by Side”An Interview with Elizabeth LaPensée
Excerpts from a Skype interview, September 6, 2016.
Thank you for providing the cover art for the special issue that we’re doing on digital Indigenous studies. Everyone loved this piece, The Women, They Hold the Ground. How did you come to make that piece, and how, physically, did you make it? How does it have meaning for you as an artwork?
So there are two aspects to this. One is the origin piece, and then one is the newer inspiration. I think this is the only piece that I’ve actually done this with, where there’s a recreation of an older piece. So the original concept was from some years ago, a painting titled The Women, They Hold the Ground, and the Windigo Lies Within, with women dancing on the curve of the earth in jingle dresses. Then within the earth there were rocks that were cracking, and then below that were dinosaur spirits, but one was really voracious. The piece was about the tapping of the land—the splitting of the land happening for oil. It was intended to show people coming together, them holding hands and dancing these healing dances. Then, of course, there was the moon as well, looking over them all.
I ended up trading that painting for gardening and plants—that’s how these things go—with Shawna Zierdt, who’s a friend of mine. She’s actually the only person who has one of my paintings other than my own family. Because to paint to me is much different from the digital media work that I do, and no one really actually sees that work unless they’re in my house or in a family member’s house. But I thought that the story was vital to share, and as I moved to Minnesota and met with [End Page 27] the Oshkii Giizhik Singers, I saw that these women lived in this way. They all gathered together and they sang together. In The Women, They Hold the Ground, there are six that are visible to us, but there are actually seven. There’s one with Grandmother Moon, and so these go to the teachings that there are seven grandmothers. One of them is in the moon, the others are on the land. They are actually not holding hands, because what they are doing with their backs turned to us is that they are holding drums.
When I made this, I had just moved from the West Coast, where men actively removed hand drums, like physically took them from women at a gathering, and so it was still not safe there for women to even hold hand drums. Then I come around Fond du Lac in Duluth, Minnesota, and there was a gathering of women who had worked through issues like that, and there were also so many elders who were women who were just saying, this is ridiculous, this has never been an issue, and nowhere was it ever said that women cannot drum. That was really inspiring to me, but I was not at a point where I could really just be like “here are the women standing in front of you drumming.” So that’s what they’re doing there. Otherwise they would be holding hands and more in a round dance kind of position.
Then the materials are silver, and there’s copper, and there’s water. There’s water in there that has actually been sung water songs to so the texture of the water is, in effect, a reflection of what the appearance of water becomes when it has been sung these water songs. That was the first art there that was created, and it led to the game Honour Water in a lot of ways. The art predated the fruition of the game, but it was one and the same motion. What I typically write as an artist statement for this one is that it’s intended to pass on the teaching that we all stand side by side...