Canoeing on the Chicago River | Newberry

Canoeing on the Chicago River

Collaboration, balance, and communication were the name of the game during this year’s Newberry Consortium in American Indian and Indigenous Studies (NCAIS) summer institute.

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NCAIS participants paddle down the Chicago River as part of the 2022 summer institute programming.

Created and hosted by the Newberry, NCAIS links universities engaged in the training of graduate students in Indigenous Studies across the US and Canada. NCAIS programming, which includes an annual workshop, summer institute, conference, and a variety of ongoing fellowships, draw on the Newberry’s American Indian and Indigenous Studies collection to facilitate grad student training.

The theme of the 2022 NCAIS summer institute, held at the Newberry for four weeks in July, was “Land, Water, and the Indigenous Archive: Art and Activism in the Mississippi River Network.” Under the guidance of Dr. Samantha Majhor (Marquette University) and Dr. Kelly Wisecup (Northwestern University), a group of graduate students explored long-held Indigenous relationships to land and water with a specific focus on the Mississippi River and its networks.

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Chief Simon Pokagon’s “Chicago in my Grandfather’s Days” reflects some of the Indigenous relationships to land and water that NCAIS students explored. This map, which is part of Pokagon’s birchbark book entitled “The Red Man’s Greeting” (1893), depicts the Chicago River as a central part of life rather than just a mere boundary line. Native people and their homes can also be seen along the riverbank. [Ayer 251 .P651 P7 1893]

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Contrary to Pokagon’s map, settler-made maps like the one above depicted the land and waterways as empty, devoid of any Native presence, and ripe for the taking. [Map of Chicago in 1812, showing the North and South branch of the Chicago River as well as Lake Michigan. 1844. VAULT Ruggles 209]

Combining classwork, immersive site visits, conversations with Indigenous artists, and research within the Newberry archives, the summer institute explored what it means to understand the riverscape through Indigenous Studies methods.

Applying their learning about ongoing Indigenous connections to river spaces, participants jumped right into the riverscape (quite literally) through an immersive canoe trip in the Chicago River.

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NCAIS participants paddle down the Chicago River as part of the 2022 summer institute programming.

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NCAIS participants paddle down the Chicago River as part of the 2022 summer institute programming.

Dr. Kelly Wisecup recalls the day fondly: “We spent the morning canoeing on the Chicago River after a week of reading Indigenous scholars Jim Rock, Roxanne Gould, and Vicente Diaz on canoes as vessels for Indigenous knowledge of water, earthworks, stars, and currents and as vessels for understanding the past and imagining the future. Canoeing requires collaboration, balance, and communication between the paddlers, and we felt this firsthand as we paddled up the river.”

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NCAIS participants and instructors paddle down the Chicago River as part of the 2022 summer institute programming.

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NCAIS participants and instructors paddle down the Chicago River as part of the 2022 summer institute programming.

Participants also had an opportunity to explore how Indigenous artists and activists draw on these relationships to land and water in order to respond to climate threats and protect Indigenous sovereignty.

Dr. Wisecup recalls, “we paddled to a small takeout at Horner Park, and students walked up a hill to see X’s Coil Mound, stimulating a conversation about the relations between earthworks and rivers that we’d been tracking in our readings and about the possibilities and limitations of public art interventions in cities like Chicago, where settlers destroyed earthworks to build a city.”