NEW CASTLE, N.H. — A slim concrete causeway links the island township of New Castle to the city of Portsmouth, over mud flats at low tide and past the looming cranes of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on nearby Seavey’s Island. Here, where the throat of the Piscataqua River widens to the sea, a tangle of shoals crest and recede with the tides, resisting tidy mapping by virtue of their changeability. Still, we try. New Castle is in New Hampshire, and the shipyard, despite its name, is in Maine, which tells you something, I think, about the arbitrary divisions of land and sea.
To put a fine point on it, Kay WalkingStick, who is Cherokee, came here to paint these shores without state lines to portion them out, without the shipbuilding that reshaped them, and without the names borrowed from British Isles stamped on every shelf of rock and mud. “Wabanaki Waters” she called her broad two-panel canvas of dark waves thundering on stone along the New Castle shore. She made it just this year, and named it for the confederacy of Native American tribes who made their homes here for millennia before white settlers came along.
The Wabanaki continue to thrive in Maine, though this heavily militarized, industrialized harbor serves as a heavy symbol of the brute force of colonialism. Their fight for sovereignty is real and ongoing in the state legislature of Maine, where Legislative Document 2094, now pending, proposes sweeping changes to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980.
On New Castle Island, an imposing fortress of brick and stone, built for the war of 1812, stares down the open sea. WalkingStick pays the island’s original inhabitants respect on the dark surface of “Wabanaki Waters.” A pattern of Native American basket motifs, braided in paint, reclaims the shore for its rightful owners. The painting will be a cornerstone of Peabody Essex Museum’s “In American Waters” exhibition, scheduled for next summer.
In colonial countries like the United States, the convention of landscape painting is as much a tangle of competing perspectives as the land itself. Imported from Europe, it was embraced with zeal by American artists from the very start. There are reasons for that: European Romantic traditions saw God in nature, an earthly sublime. What better to sustain these artists in a strange new world but Divine Providence, the hand of God guiding the righteous in the promised land? In 19th century European art, nature swells in rapturous bloom. In America, landscape painting, to me, often feels fanatical, perverse. The Hudson River School’s visions of thick forest and waterway riven by beatific shafts of light carry the weight of propaganda, divine absolution for the genocidal sins of a century before. Albert Bierstadt, who comes up a lot in these conversations, expanded the School’s motifs to westward expansion, his overwrought mountain scenes freighted with Manifest Destiny, the dark belief that American settlers had claims to Native lands by divine right. Bierstadt’s message was clear: Here was a land begging for conquest. Indigenous people in his pictures, if they appear at all, are the vanquished, the old making way for the new.
A Native American artist taking up the practice of landscape painting is no small thing. Like the land itself, it’s a tradition charged with claims of ownership and identity. In the right hands, this is a powerful thing — an act of defiance, a reclamation of self.
WalkingStick was born in Syracuse, N.Y., her father Cherokee and her mother American Irish. (Their wedding in the 1930s made the newspaper: “Syracuse girl weds Cherokee Indian,” read the headline.) Now in her 80s, WalkingStick has made and taught art for decades. A glorious career retrospective at Washington, D.C.'s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in 2016 covered more than 50 years of work, spanning her early career in the thick of the New York-based revolutions of Minimalism and Conceptualism in the 1960s and ’70s, through her turn to abstract painting as the ’70s progressed. By the 1980s, landscapes had crept into her work, sharing diptychs with moody abstraction, the particular and the oblique in close conversation.
Later in her career, WalkingStick turned more wholly to the land, and to reclaiming it for its rightful owners. But her steadfast practice of building Indigenous identity and history into the agnostic formalism of conceptual art is tied to the ground beneath our feet. Her 1974-77 “Chief Joseph Series,” a collection of 35 small canvases incised with precise geometric forms, had all the hallmarks of minimal abstraction, though its name made it something else entirely. The series is named for the leader of the Nez Perce Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest who in 1877 resisted removal by the US government from their ancestral lands in the Columbia River Plateau. Their defiance led to violence with white settlers and then a manhunt, where Joseph and his people, now fugitives, were captured by government forces on their way to seeking amnesty in Canada. He spent the rest of his days shuffled from one stockade to the next, unmoored and landless. There is nothing abstract about that.
For WalkingStick, these later works are deeply specific, inhabiting spaces both real and emotional. The Anishinaabe Saulteaux artist and curator Robert Houle calls them “a living synthesis of human presence and place.” She offers no glorification of the land as divinity on earth; she embraces its beauty as a physical thing, earthly and human. Her work in the mountains of the Southwest — Bierstadt’s stomping grounds — is plainspoken and haunted, with intricate tribal patterns along their surfaces knitting millennia of humanity to the vistas before her.
American painters of another era, enraptured with the new world, painted a land blessed and bestowed unto them by God; WalkingStick paints the land’s contested nature itself. But she also paints something else, something powerful and tragic and true. “Wabanaki Waters” is not, in fact, a representation of a long-ago coast, untouched by colonial stain. Heavy boulders mounded into a breakwater poke into the sea. This is now.
Ship-building cranes now rake the sky here, and trans-Atlantic freighters have carried cargo in and out of port for centuries. “Wabanaki Waters” can do nothing to change that history. But it can declare the presence of Native American people, who continue to fight for what’s rightfully theirs.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify the status of Wabanaki peoples in New England and the New Castle area.