“Southeastern Alaska resides on the unceded territories of the Áak’w Kwáan, Taant’á Kwáan and Sheetk’á Kwáan on Lingít Aaní, also known as Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka, Alaska. We acknowledge that Lingít Peoples have been stewards of the land on which we work and reside since time immemorial, and we are grateful for that stewardship and incredible care.”

This is the University of Alaska Southeast Campus’ land acknowledgement. An acknowledgement that many have undoubtedly heard in some variation across all North America, without giving much thought to. An acknowledgement that Tlingít and Unangax̂ artist Nicholas Galanin has most likely had to hear throughout a large portion of his life.

Land acknowledgements such as the one above, have long been utilized in formal institutions as a method of both recognizing and respecting “Indigenous peoples as traditional stewards” of the land we currently reside on. Chances are, if you have ever sat in on a university lecture, a formal event or a government or judicial proceeding, you have heard one of these various acknowledgements prelude any of these situations. Chances are also that most have never paid much attention to these acknowledgements, despite their efforts to express gratitude and appreciate to those whose territory we may reside on.

Never Forget by Nicholas Galanin. Image courtesy of Nicholas Galanin.

The mixed bag of reactions to attempts to combat colonialism and the oppression of Indigenous people and their cultures that comes from things such as land acknowledgements highlights a need to utilize differing methods to achieve these goals. It is undoubtedly clear that the non-Indigenous population aims to do much more than a land acknowledgement, but Indigenous Alaskan artist Nicholas Galanin is picking up the slack for settlers. Using multi-disciplinary techniques ranging from music to sculptures to large displays to paintings to multimedia exhibits, Galanin is using his art to attack colonialism head on and promote the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for Sustainable Cities and Communities, Responsible Consumption and Production and Life on Land.

Photo of Nicholas Galanin in his work studio by Emily Kwong/KCAW. Image courtesy of Alaska Public Media

Born in Sitka Alaska in 1979 to parents of Tlingít and Unangax̂ descent, Galanin is one of the many Indigenous artists that is bringing a voice to the peoples and culture native to much of the land in North America. Combining a vast educational history at some of the most renowned schools in the world, including a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Jewelry Design and Silversmithing from Guildhall University and a Masters of Fine Arts in Indigenous Visual Arts from Massey University, with his connection to the land and culture he belongs to, the majority of Galanin’s artworks address the most pressing issues both internal and external to Indigenous peoples in North America.

Architecture of Return, Escape by Nicholas Galanin. Image courtesy of Nicholas Galanin.

When thinking of Indigenous peoples, their cultures and customs, many retreat to what is taught in school, from Pocahontas to brightly coloured Indigenous regalia to Eagle feathers, often attributing these very general ideas collectively to all Indigenous peoples. Yet, with 574 different officially recognized Indigenous tribes across the United States alone, the cultures of each tribe can vary so greatly from the generalizations that many non-Indigenous individuals have taught and learned over the years.

Despite these differences across the many Indigenous tribes, Galanin grounds his work in the one commonality between most Indigenous tribes. Nature and the physical land on Earth that we inhabit every day. According to the United Nations, the traditions and belief systems of most Indigenous peoples often mean that they regard nature with deep respect and a strong sense of belonging, in turn sustaining traditional knowledge that converges largely with modern notions of conservation and sustainability.

Fair Warning: A Sacred Place - Supernatural Spirits and Animals by Nicholas Galanin. Image courtesy of Nicholas Galanin.

Rooting his work in “his perspective as an Indigenous man connected to the land and culture he belongs to,” Galanin’s nearly endless portfolio of artworks does exactly this, it advocates for Indigenous culture and identity while converging this identity with a need for sustainability and environmental justice.

Utilizing many mediums, Galanin intertwines the past, present and future of colonialism, environmental issues and Indigenous culture to create “vessels for knowledge, culture and technology, that are inherently political, generous, unflinching, insistent and poetic.”

Artworks like Never Forget, featuring statements like “Indian Land” and incorporates callbacks to famous landmarks like Hollywood sign while intersecting with current issues regarding the colonization and misuse of Indigenous land across North America. Not only does Galanin’s artwork encompass outlandish sculptures and signs mixed with photography, but he also utilizes many traditional Indigenous mediums of art such as the painting of animal hides and skins.

This is seen within works like Architecture of Return, in which Galanin returns to ideas like “land back” and the criminal colonization of Indigenous land by mapping out returns, in an almost floorplan-like manner, for Indigenous peoples and their lands.

Finally, as seen within Fair Warning: A Sacred Place, Galanin even utilizes largely empty spaces to highlight many Indigenous spiritual concepts and unceded Indigenous lands within North America. Although crossing over many various mediums, Galanin’s work seems to always center around and come back to the Indigenous return to land, the importance of the land and the unjust colonization of Indigenous lands.

American Prayer Rug (Signal Disruption) by Nicholas Galanin. Image courtesy of Nicholas Galanin.

While advocation for better quality of life for Indigenous people often involves creating a dynamic in which they are melded into one with the rest of society, yet Galanin’s work highlights a different method of achieving these goals. Rather than trying to squeeze Indigeneity and culture into pre-existing spaces within society, Galanin counters assimilation. His  work highlight the notion that differences between Indigenous  and non-Indigenous people are strengths, something that should not be placed in binaries or categories.

Indigeneity, through the lens of Galanin, is something unique, something deeply rooted in the Earth and nature, something that should be celebrated and something that deserves well-supported sovereignty.

Every day we encounter performative acts and works relating to Indigeneity, environmental and cultural issues, almost always coming from non-Indigenous corporations, companies and individuals. At times it can be difficult to find resources, artwork and actions that go beyond this performativity in a general sense, but Galanin is changing this. An Indigenous artist that not only knows the depths of these issues from first-hand experience, but an artist who utilizes every piece of work to actively promote these goals.

With artists like Galanin are creating such profound pieces, maybe it is time that we move past performative acts, like land acknowledgements, from non-Indigenous individuals and instead shine a spotlight on those like Galanin. Those who are actively creating change.

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