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Opinion: How does art help with collective grief about climate change, genocide? – The Register-Guard


Joe Brainard (left) leads a Eugene School District group of Native American students as they carry a totem pole back to its place in the 4J Education Center auditorium Friday. The totem was recently restored by retired teacher Vic Hansen. (Paul Carter/The Register-Guard)

Last week, my students and I visited the Common Seeing: Meeting Points’, Sarah Siestreem’s and On Earth’s exhibits at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. Afterwards, I found myself scrambling for words hearing them speak with deep honesty about the emotional truths art had uncovered for them. As one of them clearly put it: What do I do with the grief I feel right now? 

We saw art that led us to reflect on the reality of rapidly melting glaciers, the removal of Indigenous peoples from ancestral homelands, unmanageable amounts of waste produced by over-consumption, the death of the last tiger in Korea, among many other painful environmental truths. The grief was palpable.  

What can we do with such grief? That is a fair question.  

On my way home, I remembered Gail Tremblay’s (Mi’kmaq and Onondaga) 2018 basket titled “After Global Warming How Long Will It Take to Reinvent a World Where Everything People Invented Depended on Snow, Frozen Food, Ice, and Digging Through It for Cold Water.” To make the basket, Tremblay weaves film from a 1967 documentary that depicts a Netsilingmiut Inuit family as static in time, a people from the past. She recycles old film while retaining traditional basket weaving practices to tell a story of Native presence and creativity in the contemporary world that combines ancestral and more recently available storytelling techniques.  

Tremblay’s work reminds us that we can tell innovative, healing stories in the face of the grief produced by colonization, genocide and climate change. So much and so many have been lost, and yet Indigenous artists continue to create and foster life.  

The other piece that provided a similar answer was Siestreem’s (Hanis Coos) “Aretha Franklin reigns supreme 1942-2018.” This ceremonial dance cap is life changing. Materials used include Pacific abalone buttons, African beads, dentalium shells from the Philippines and Columbia River sweet grass and blackberry dye. Siestreem’s work honors those who contribute materials in the tags that describe her art. Her pieces deploy Hanis Coos’ traditional weaving techniques and ceremonial traditions alongside cultural influences from other PNW Native communities, Caribbean Taino and Mexican collaborators, African aesthetic practices and materials, etc.  

Tremblay and Siestreem invite us to connect with our ancestral traditions and knowledge, recover them and weave and create from within them, while learning in respectful ways from our neighbors. Their art turns the grief that genocide and climate change leave within us into opportunities to weave unimaginable, healing stories of co-existence and co-creation with one another, stories necessary for all life to flourish on Earth. They generously provide us with a methodology to face our own grief.  

And so we thank these artists and others who in sharing their craft, in making themselves vulnerable to us all, have provided a refuge, a site of hope and a path to follow that can create life from the grief that could otherwise dim our creative fires.   

Alai Reyes-Santos is a monthly contributor to The Register-Guard.

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