Niro’s images, part of a 2015 work called “Battlefields of My Ancestors,” went straight to where memory and emotion are entangled, where words like place and home and the possessive “mine” all seem inadequate to describe one’s feeling for the land. The work is included in an exhibition, “Shelley Niro: 500 Year Itch,” on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian Heye Center.
But the word Mohawk, the name of a people and a river in Upstate New York where they once made their home, was even more arresting. Niro, born in Niagara Falls, N.Y., grew up there and on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada. So how is she also Mohawk, and why did she photograph the Mohawk River? A foolish thing to ask unless history has been erased.
Niro’s ancestors lived where my family lived, in the same watershed of the Mohawk River, two centuries before my parents arrived there. Niro’s people are Kanyen’kehá:ka, or Mohawk, and many of them allied with the British during the Revolutionary War. When George Washington won the war, the newly minted Americans kicked the Mohawks off their native land. They resettled in different places, including near Niagara Falls and across the Canadian border in the Six Nations Reserve of the Grand River.
When I was a boy, a Mohawk woman came to our school to tell my almost entirely White classroom about her people. She talked about where they lived, what they ate and what their homes once looked like, but I don’t remember her saying anything about being evicted from the land. She was speaking to children, and she didn’t speak of genocide or displacement. It’s a dim memory, both sweet and sad, and I realize now that the success of historical erasure also removed anything that might have pricked the conscience of a child.
Even as, somewhere north and west of me, a Mohawk girl named Shelley was coming of age, this woman spoke in the past tense, about things long ago, things that had seemingly disappeared. And because they were gone, there was nothing to stumble over, nothing to trouble ideas like place, home and “mine.”
And yet that was my first response upon seeing Niro’s depiction of the old ancestral land of the Mohawks: mine. This is a place I know, and a landscape that inveigled its way into my memory more thoroughly and deeply than I could have acknowledged 10, 20 or 30 years after leaving it. I have no legal, historic, ethnic, residential or professional connection to this place, just memory, but when I saw her river I thought of it as my river.
Niro’s art, which speaks in the present tense and affirms the continuity of the Mohawk people, is haunted by the displacement of her ancestors. She remembers her father speaking of the lost Mohawk lands, recounting stories told by his grandmother. Neither Niro’s father nor her great grandmother ever lived there, so their memories must have been a mixture of anecdotes and fragments of anecdotes stitched into poetic coherence by imagination — like most memories of things that happen before the horizon of our individual consciousness.
If they hadn’t seen the Mohawk River since they were forced to leave it for other shores, Niro’s kin may have remembered a place before it was disfigured by bridges, barges, locks and pollution. They certainly remembered a river different from the one I experienced, an often muddy and dirty waterway dotted with crumbling factories, a river that flooded almost every spring when the ice broke up, threatening the historic neighborhoods of old Schenectady. The Kanyen’kehá:ka almost certainly knew the land where the Dutch wanted to build was prone to flooding when they allowed them to create a settlement there — the name Schenectady is derived from a Mohawk word meaning “beyond the pines” — in 1662.
Not far from where we lived, General Electric (where my father worked) dumped more than a million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River, north of its confluence with the Mohawk, which was also polluted by industry and the salt washing off the roads every winter. The river was something to cross over, not swim in. My mother, in moments of exasperation, would threaten “to go jump in the Mohawk,” by which she meant take her final exit from the burden of family and motherhood.
Sometimes rivers are seen defiled by electrical power lines in Niro’s work but more often they are a source of other, more intangible powers. The Niagara River was a sacred site for rituals, and Niagara Falls appears with a thundering muteness in a haunting 2015 video called simply “Niagara.” An idealized, unnamed river is rendered as a source of life and purpose in a 2013 painting “Wishing a River,” in which a woman’s gaze seems to meet a river’s unseen headwaters in the far distance of an idyllic landscape.
The last time I saw the Mohawk River, just a few months ago, it was cleaner than it was when I was a child. And I had matured considerably into the wisdom of what it means to love a river. The art of Native and Indigenous people is often bound up with the loss of land and displacement, and because Niro’s work is so closely connected to the land where I once lived, I felt accused by it, implicated in the tragedy that befell the Mohawk people at the end of the Revolutionary War.
What follows will read to some like an effort to avoid that moral conundrum, but it is also an honest effort to preserve something vital for my own existence, a love of the land, a love of rivers. We are thrown into the world and land where our mothers ground us. It may seem to us, at some point in our lives, that the place where we land is beautiful, that it is home and we may say, “this river, these hills, are mine.” The claim isn’t legal or contractual or binding on any other person.
And it isn’t even sensible. For if we are truly at home, the land isn’t ours. We are of it.
None of this has anything to do with the larger, unresolved questions raised by centuries of theft and broken treaties and forced displacement. I don’t know how to solve that. But if I took something essential from Niro’s work — and yes, it may be self-serving and not what she intended — it is this: Loving a river is never wrong.
Shelley Niro: 500 Year Itch Through Jan. 1 at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Heye Center. americanindian.si.edu.
POST AUTHOR: Philip Kennicott