We take water for granted.
Elizabeth Phelps Meyer does not.
“Water is the first medicine,” she says. “We use it to heal, to cleanse, to live. We are disconnected from all this in our culture, but Native Americans are not.”
When the visual arts educator and interdisciplinary artist became aware in 2016 of the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline by the Native American tribes who live in its path, she knew she had no choice but to become involved.
She says what happened in 2016, as the Prayer Camps were set up at Standing Rock in North Dakota, “woke me up.” She adds, “I care about these people and about the planet. My art matters only to the degree it can change people’s minds.”
When the Water Protector Movement of the tribes resisted the incursion of a pipeline under the Missouri River, which they fear may contaminate their water, the situation became so contentious—and violent—that it made national headlines.
Ms. Meyer says that the water supply nourishes millions of people in the Missouri River watershed. The affected tribes also point out that the pipeline violates sacred ground where their ancestors are buried.
Her response to the Standing Rock standoff, which pitted its indigenous people against local and federal authorities—was to create something in the form of solidarity. She wanted to contribute a message through artistic expression that is relatable to others who share her empathy for the aggrieved parties at Standing Rock.
She began making porcelain cups that would symbolically hold the liquid that is essential to all living things. “The cups are expressive of the beauty of water.”
Thus began her almost two-year odyssey that culminates in early October with a multi-level month-long program.
Ms. Meyer has assembled an ambitious series of events that is anchored by a gallery exhibition from Oct. 2-27 at Art Centro in Poughkeepsie. During that time frame, there will be presentations and panel discussions on such topics as “The River People” and “Decolonization.” There will be songs and stories of water protectors, a screening of two documentary films about Standing Rock, and a closing ceremony on Oct. 27 in which participants will walk one mile from the gallery, Art Centro, to the Hudson River waterfront with Native Americans leading in ceremony, who will release water back into the Hudson.
“The cry and prayer Mni Wiconi, ‘Water Is Life,’ will be heard directly in Poughkeepsie,” she says. “Community events will feature indigenous Water Protectors, native artists, scholars and activists to Poughkeepsie to share their knowledge.”
The umbrella title for the entire project is “Each Day, Water: A Monument for the Water Protectors of Standing Rock and Beyond.”
As the centerpiece of the event, the gallery exhibition will have on display 365 cups -- more than half of the 600 ceramic cups Elizabeth Phelps Meyer has fashioned by hand and wood-fired in the past 18 months. The number of cups represent the days in the solar year.
The symbolism of the cups, she explains, is to “remind people of the necessity for clean water, each day. I view the cups as burnt offerings.” There will be 328 cups filled with water from two rivers that course through the Standing Rock reservation. That is the number of days the Standing Rock Prayer Camps were active. Ms. Meyer says that “the slowly evaporating water will evoke impermanence and suffuse the intimate gallery space with river smells.”
The other 37 cups will contain water from the headwaters of the Hudson, at Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondacks, the Ramapo River, and other sites with active Water Protector struggles including Lake Superior and the headwaters of the Mississippi from Lake Itasca, MN. She points out that the proposed Pilgrim Pipelines “would transport fracked oil through the Hudson River watershed and south, past Poughkeepsie.”
In that way, the exhibition connects Standing Rock and the Hudson Valley as sister communities that stand in resistance “to recklessness by the fossil fuel industry.”
“There’s a history in America of disregard for indigenous people,” Meyer says. “They are intimately connected with Mother Earth. The pipeline threatens the sovereignty of native communities. That’s what the project is about: native leadership and sovereignty. They have to fight for it, and they need allies.”
Elizabeth Phelps Meyer’s passionate belief in the need for de-colonization of oppressed populations has more than an artistic and spiritual connection to the plight of Native Americans. “I have some native ancestry and feel a natural kinship. To honor those ancestors, I need to be an ally in the current struggles.”
Elizabeth Meyer spent two weeks in July 2018 at Standing Rock to learn more about the plight of its stalwart inhabitants and find how she could lend her support to their noble and spiritual cause.
She interviewed more than 20 Water Protectors from Standing Rock, and other Sioux communities, to capture their oral histories of the movement and the reasons driving their commitment to sustain their resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline and other fossil fuel infrastructure. The recordings will be part of the exhibition so visitors can listen to what Ms. Meyer calls their oral statements.
“My fear of appropriating a native struggle couldn’t have been more wrong,” she says. “I was seen as someone who could reach people they could not reach.”
“Standing Rock woke people up. I think it changed the world. People think it’s over, that it’s finished. It’s not over.”
In one recording, Joye Braun (“Eagle Feather Woman”) says, “When I heard they were coming to destroy my water, I had to stand up. We have no choice. We are down to less than 10 percent of clean water in the world. When we say ‘mni,’ it’s not just a word. It is a prayer—to remind ourselves how sacred water is to life, and everyone must stand up for the water.”
For more information, visit elizabethpmeyer.com/each-day-water.