Alamogordo_ NM_RiverWhittle_TheLandNeedsItsPeople_InCollaborationWith_NDNCollective_Indigena_Landback.Art_Photographer=RobertoE.Rosales_IG@quiquephoto_141

River Whittle, the earth needs its people (billboard), in Apache territory (Alamogordo, NM), 2021. Image copyright Roberto E. Rosales


How River Whittle Confronts Legacies of Settler Colonialism through Art Making

Published Tuesday, Oct 25, 2022

(opens in a new window) River Whittle is a two-spirit Caddo, Lenape, and white multimedia artist, youth mentor, and community organizer whose work supports Indigenous life, care, and revitalization. In this new interview, Whittle delves into their expansive practice—which spans photography, printmaking, video, and other mediums—and modes of bridging their ancestral past with the present and future.
How would you describe your artistic practice for people who are new to your work?

I am a multimedia two-spirit Caddo, Lenape, and white artist. I am a photographer, a printmaker, a ceramic artist, a metal worker, and a shell worker. Lately I have been focused more on shell working as a means of participating in the revival of this practice for my Caddo people.

What informs the content of your work? Are there specific themes that you find yourself responding or returning to?

I like to look back at history, both traditional tribal history and colonial history, as well as my own life. I use queer Indigenous feminism as a means of analyzing past and current events. I am fascinated with the process of identifying the roots of colonization—the ideas that created the foundation for global white supremacy, and in turn, the profound, simple, and anti-oppressive roots we want to return to. What are the abstract teachings that can teach us how to be good to each other again?

In my printmaking and photography, I’ve found the theme of reflection come to the surface. My photography is an opportunity to reflect back to the person I’m photographing the beauty they already hold within themselves. I take this lesson with me as a youth mentor. In my printmaking, I’ve been shown how present reflections are in Caddo history. Mirrors can be gateways, past and future, water and earth, old form and new form. The idea that reflections follow us everywhere can remind us how to act, knowing that our behavior and energy will be transmuted else where to create a continuous cycle. It’s up to us to use the mirror image responsibly.

In my shellwork, I’ve been shown the importance of pushing back on pristine, manicured, anti-nature work. A shell can be so shiny and immaculate on one side, and rough, bumpy, and earthy on the other. I chose not to rid it of its organic surface quite often, because I do not want people to forget that the shell is a body, an imperfect yet extremely beautiful protective mechanism. It is not binary, it is both and its body lays the ground for everything in between. If you sand a shell down to the point of zero imperfections, you will sometimes have nothing left. The shell does not want to be sterilized. I choose to see this as a metaphor for art, culture, and life that defies western concepts of polished binaries rid of complex reality.

What influences your creative process?

I learn a lot from the beings I work with: clay, fire, shell, copper, humans. I find myself observing how these living beings move, interact and talk. I listen to the stories they tell. Sometimes I may start with a vague idea of what I want to create, but the process is the biggest informant of what the work becomes. The lessons they teach me then feed back into new ideas. It’s a continuous loop and cycle.

How does your relationship with your ancestors inform the ways that your work confronts legacies of settler colonialism?

I feel that I have a responsibility to make my work political. My ancestors fought so hard to fight and survive genocide and the world that colonizers wanted to create. They thought about us, and we need to think about them. Just like them, we also need to think about our descendants. We are in such a critical time due to climate change. I am 26 and by the time I am an elder the climate and environment will be radically different. I need to play my part in preparing the next generations to live, fight and care, in a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual sense. And I need to do my best to fight the efforts of those trying to kill us. I know these things because of the stories I have been told, my family, my community, and the things my ancestors tell me. If you listen, it’s all there. If you can’t hear it, do the work to wake up.

(opens in a new window) Lenapehoking/Land Back is such a salient image; can you tell us a bit more about that piece and the process of creating it?

I created this piece before I had ever had the privilege to visit my Lenape homelands, or as we call it, Lenapehoking. At the time I was filled with a lot of anger. I felt a lot of bitterness towards people who were profiting in my homelands. NYC is on our land, and the creation of it was dependent upon Lenape genocide. The buildings and concrete seem to want to drown us out, which is ironic considering that if capitalists don’t stop their obsessive practices of exploiting the earth and the working class, the ocean is going to rise and drown NYC. I was thinking a lot about destruction when I made this piece. About my desire to carve out a place for Lenape life in this place, even if it meant destroying colonial settlement in the process. The original piece is actually a two-layer print. The letters in the top layer are cut-outs, carved with an X-acto knife. The buildings are removed to make space for the truth of the place, for its real name. The bottom layer is a filled with a red base, and there are darker red lines throughout the landscape. This symbolizes the natural desire that I as an Indigenous person had for destruction, in the face of destruction. Seeing this harmful society cause so much pain made me want to tear it all down. And the times in my life that I didn’t process this feeling or do something productive with it, I turned the desire for destruction on myself via self harm, substance abuse, and choices that generally hurt me. So yeah, there’s a lot of pain in this piece. But I want to share it, because I want people to understand the layers of processing we as Lenape people have to do simply to be here.

Are there traditional Lenape artmaking techniques that influence your contemporary practice?

I do not consider myself a traditional Lenape artist. I would love to be, one day, but that’s a goal not a current state. However, the culture does influence my work. Lately as I’ve been diving into shellwork I have been really lucky to work with wampum. The first time I visited Lenapehoking in 2019, I was shocked to find wampum just laying on the beach. Wampum, or quahog shell, is very important to Lenape people. Having been removed from our land for so long, it was like a dream come true to simply be able to happen upon it naturally. I gathered it that year, and have searched and gathered here every year since. The last year I was here, my partner found a bunch of large pieces for me, it was like the biggest and most exciting gift. I was able to use these pieces to cut, carve, and polish. I created jewelry from them that people I love now wear. I use tools my ancestors didn’t, such as electric saws and polishing wheels, but some practices like working under water remain the same. I have more knowledge about traditional arts practices on my Caddo side; what I’ve been studying for shellwork has been very Southeastern-based and Caddo specific. I have a lot to learn on my Lenape side. Being descended from multiple tribes can be challenging because there is a lot of information you should be learning. I also started reconnecting to both cultures about 8 years ago, so I have a long ways to go, and I think that’s important to acknowledge. When it comes to traditional Lenape artists, there are many folks who should be looked to, such as Tracy Newkumet Burrows (Delaware Nation of Oklahoma), Theresa Johnson (Delaware Nation at Moraviantown), and Levi Randoll (Delaware Tribe of Oklahoma).

How do you think art institutions can meaningfully support Indigenous artists and communities? What action or change would you like to see within the art world?

In my experience, Indigenous art is the same as Indigenous food, love, clothing, housing, family, history, earth, ceremony, and being. It’s about grasping the essence of life and showing your thankfulness for the grace that is everything; it’s about doing your sacred part in the cycle.

The Western art world is money. It is run by capitalism. This will continue to breed emptiness and harm. To me, it’s fake art. I would like to see this change. 

Ultimately, we need our land back. We need all institutions to hop on board with that. Land back doesn’t mean that every single non-Native living on our land gets kicked out, it means that tribes would have the ability to govern and steward their land again. This is key for the survival of our entire planet, as Indigenous Peoples make up only 5% of the population but steward 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Wealthy art institutions can put resources towards this movement by buying land back to gift to tribes and/or financially supporting groups who are working towards land back and Indigenous sovereignty. They can commit to initiatives and change led by the Indigenous peoples of the land they occupy. They can uplift and educate. All art institutions influence culture. With cultural shifts comes real change.

Based on your career so far, is there any advice that you’d give to emerging artists?

Try not to make all of your art just for money. Don’t feel guilty if you have to; we all have to survive under capitalism. But if you can, create things just to create, too. Creating for the purpose of product or even success can become exhausting.

Observe the land around you. Let it influence what you want to create. Don’t forget to give back.

You’re still an artist even if you take long breaks from creating, even if people don’t appreciate your work like you wish they would, even if you’re self-taught.

Think about your ancestral history. It informs your work whether or not you’re conscious of it. Teach what you know. Keep creating.

  • Essays — How River Whittle Confronts Legacies of Settler Colonialism through Art Making, Oct 25, 2022