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  • Sheila Novak

Indigenizing Gardening: in conversation with Erin Genia

“Gardening is a way to be connected to the land that I’m on and to be sure that I am taking care of the place that I am having the most impact: the ground under my feet. In that sense, it is a pretty simple yet profound act.”

-Erin Genia


Anpa Wi, Sun Gourd


Erin Genia (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) centers Dakota values, philosophies and wisdom as the thread connecting her work. From her artistic practice to gardening and research, Erin builds a powerful presence of indigeneity in her work and in the systems she works actively to transform. “In Dakota philosophy, our belief system which is based on thousands of years of observation of the natural world, is that everything is part of this great continuum of life. And everything within this continuum has some agency of its own. And the land, being the thing that sustains us, is an important part of this spectrum. Additionally, everything that exists should also be treated with respect. It is about a connection to the land but also about how I relate to the world and everything in it.”


Amidst the pandemic, Erin has found ways to nurture growth in the garden. “We actually have always wanted to spend more time gardening, and yet because of this very hectic urban lifestyle that we live, it’s really hard to find time to slow down a bit and plant some seeds and to cultivate some [plants].” As an artist, this engagement in the garden is inherently part of her creative practice. “The definition [of art] for indigenous people is different than what it is in the West: harnessing that creative spirit within me, and using that to develop my skills in whatever way I feel drawn to do.” Erin’s multidisciplinary practice includes public art, performance work, ceramic sculpture and more. Her piece “Earthling” centers the relationship between the earth and our body through merging the two in performance. The artwork takes up physical and psychological space through sound and serves as “a reminder, that underneath people's closely held ideas, underneath the systems that capitalize upon us and colonize us, our adopted ideologies, we are earth-based beings.”


Earthling with thundertube

“Drawing from that creative spirit to do things, is part of my practice as an artist, and can also be applied to gardening. And yet I feel like I have a lot to learn too. I really don’t feel like I’m an expert. I have more knowledge than I thought I did, and it is such a humbling experience to be giving seeds the thing that they need to grow and thrive and stay alive.”

Erin and I spoke mutually situated on the land of the Wampanoag, Nipmuc, Massachusett and Ponkapoag people. Erin’s research and creative methodology centers the acknowledgement of the original people of the land as a central first step to engaging in any practice or activity. “That is an important aspect of my work regardless of media: I always want to make space for the original people of this land, to acknowledge that this is their land and that they have thousands of years of history in this place.” In practice, Erin has been using seeds and agricultural techniques that have been grown, cultivated and developed by the Wampanoag, Nipmuc, Massachusett and Ponkapoag people for generations as part of a way to practice gardening.


Knowing and learning about the original people of the land where we live and garden will inherently reframe how we think of the land. Acknowledging the true history serves not only to privilege the original people from the spaces we inhabit, but allows us to “learn from the people who have persisted here, who have lived here, and” (especially in the area known as New England) “who have been resilient through the epicenter of colonization of this continent.”


Part of this honest examination of the land requires truth seeking in the story of the history of the land and its people, and how that history manifests today. Modern agriculture, especially the industrialized form that dominates the landscape and markets today, is founded on the capitalistic drive for short-term profit that has little consideration for the long-term ecological ramifications. These industrial operations are a relatively new feature of the landscape and have replaced the glorified ideal of the “family farm”. Yet for Erin, a more thorough examination of “this american ideal of ‘the happy farm’ or ‘agricultural bliss’ is, in fact, not: farming and agriculture were used as a tool to destroy our culture.”


Engaging in agricultural practices such as gardening calls this to the forefront. “I am always cognizant of the history of agriculture as it relates to specifically my tribe. In the late 1800s when our tribe, and other tribes, were put onto reservations, the land that we held communally was allotted into plots ranging from 40 to 160 acres.” In a process of forced assimilation, Dakota ancestors, alongside tribal members from numerous North American nations, were given plots in accordance with European family structures: immediate family groups with a singular male head of household. “That act was one of the main reasons that so much has gone wrong for Dakota people. Breaking up the land into private ownership destroyed the extended family unit.” Simultaneously, Dakota children were forced into boarding schools which were developed with the express intention to destroy indigenous culture. “A lot of the ways we cultivated the land and the methods we used were obscured or even lost. Private land ownership of our traditional territories has put up barriers to traditional Dakota economic practices, like agriculture.


When engaging in gardening “it is hard to pull away from those histories of agriculture.” And yet, Erin also shared that gardening and farming are “essential, cultural acts”, which, when engaged with with intention, can serve as a method of reclaiming both land and culture. And American Indian farmers are engaging with this essential act of cultivating food, and using that space as a method to recenter indigenous knowledge and traditions. “On a personal level, gardening is a very therapeutic thing to do to counteract some of that [history]”.


Dakota Pride Banner, Anpa O Wicahnpi


About Erin Genia

Erin’s writing and thinking on decolonization in the public realm made waves in Boston in 2019 with the publication of her essay Unseen Dimensions of Public Space: Disrupting Colonial Narratives” in the Boston Art Review.This article illustrates the deep ways in which Erin engages with local and national communities in engaging with the considerations of how colonialist myths dominate our public imagination. As monuments celebrating colonialist and white supremacist narratives are being removed and reconsidered on a national level, Erin will be working with NEFA to publish a series of blogs exploring indigeneity in public space. Erin’s writing serves as a prescient example of the framework with which to evaluate not only the public realm, but also the approach to daily life. Up next? Erin is serving as the current Artist in Residence for the City of Boston where she will be working with the Department of Emergency Management with a community-based perspective, examining questions such as “what does civic practice means in this time?”


Learn more about Erin and her work by participating in conversations with the Mayor's office this week and next: Confronting Colonial Myths in Boston's Public Space


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