Andrea Carlson, WATER IS LIFE, in conversation
“We have the tools to make sure that Dakota and Ojibwe don’t disappear… because that tool is our minds. Anyone can learn it, so we can save these languages. And I feel like the planet is in the same situation. We have the tools to make sure this doesn’t happen.”
Northern Lights.mn’s Assistant Curator Elle Thoni sat down with Andrea Carlson to discuss her Metro Transit train wrap design, WATER IS LIFE, now on view along the Green Line.
Elle Thoni: When Northern Lights.mn asked you to design a train wrap for Metro Transit, what was your thought process? How did you begin to approach such a gigantic prompt?
Andrea Carlson: When the co-director, Steve Dietz first asked me, he was very humble – “would this be something that would interest you?” And I was immediately like “yes. Yes yes yes!” And I think he was like, “OK… think about it. Let me know in a couple of days.” But for me, I knew immediately that I wanted to do it. Partially, it was because I went to the University of MN. I’m an alumni of the Ojibwe language program. And when I was in class once, one of my fellow students was talking about public transportation, and how every time he gets on a bus or a train, he sees different announcements from the City of Minneapolis or from Metro Transit in English, Somali, Hmong, Spanish, to serve many of the communities in the Twin Cities. And the student was kind of lamenting how he never saw his language represented in any of those public spaces. So when Steve asked me to design something, I was immediately like, “I’m going to put Ojibwe or Dakota up on one of those trains.”
So I feel like this project is a little bit of a love letter to the language revitalization efforts, and since Climate Chaos is one of the major themes of Northern Spark this year… what was to be said in Ojibwe and Dakota was clear – with the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Water is Life.
And I feel like, part of language is… we have the tools to make sure that Dakota and Ojibwe don’t disappear, because they’re endangered languages. We have the tools to make sure that doesn’t happen, because that tool is our minds. Anyone can learn it, so we can save these languages. And I feel like the planet is in the same situation. It’s like, we have the tools to make sure this doesn’t happen. We have our minds. It’s very sad that we can hurt the environment for our profits, it almost seems like that’s the not thinking way of an energy solution.
ET: Yeah. So if we have the primary tool we need to address the disappearance of Dakota and Ojibwe as well as the changing climate, why don’t we use those tools do you think?
AC: I mean, I feel like it’s clearly quick profit. It seems like whenever there’s an opportunity to expedite something for profits, that’s usually the default decision. But there’s no such thing as a closed system. The earth wants to take everything back. It wants to destroy every road, it wants to crack everything. Because it’s organic, it’s moving, it’s shifting. It’s alive. So I think we when we think about a road as a road, when we think about objects as the things that they are, then we don’t see how they’re interconnected. We don’t see a road as a dry riverbed, and the water that flows down it as a tributary. But if you have the mindset to think of things as whole systems, then you’d think of them less as separate and more as interconnected. And I feel like that way of thinking is encapsulated – and I speak as Anishinaabe or Ojibwe person – that way of thinking is baked into the language. And so, if you lose the language, there’s so much rich context and such a great philosophy that’s in there. We’re destroying the environment and it’s side by side with the destruction of culture.
ET: So what do you think the effect of language in public space is?
AC: When I was a student and I saw the language out in my environment, it would be so good. It would be a confidence builder. ‘Cause when you’re learning a language that a lot of people don’t speak, you start wondering if it’s a futile pursuit. Not that it’s a waste of time… you just start feeling a real sense of loss, and a real sense of alienation.
I knew a few students who wanted to tag buildings with graffiti in Ojibwe. Just to see it in the environment. And graffiti is great, but it’s sad that it has to be that avenue, in order to see our cultures represented in the public sphere. So for this design to be sanctioned and approved of in an official way, I think that’s really cool.
ET: Totally. I had the experience of my first language not being the primary language spoken when I was based in Montreal. That’s when I made the connection – and it’s such an obvious one – between language and culture and how, as you say, the values of a culture are baked into the language. So I’m curious, what are the values of the languages that you chose and how did you bring them out in the design for the train?
AC: So there’s this double aspect of the Twin Cities. It’s the Twin Cities. It’s Minneapolis. It’s Saint Paul. It’s a river that connects the two. You have the Dakota and the Ojibwe people. This is the historical home of those two tribes that were often at odds with each other. But you have these two sides to everything. And for Ojibwe, there’s this traditional thought: you’d have a medicine bag or a drum, and you have the sky spirits and the water spirits and where they come together is where the medicine is, where the power is. So I was thinking about the two sides of the train. One has the Thunder Bird or the wings on it, and the other side has a water spirit or a water snake. Those are two sides of the train, and it connects two cities. There’s something powerful in the coming together.
The blue and the red on each side are symbolic of the big drum, one odegan, it’s Ojibwe for Dakota drum because of a vision. When the U.S. military was coming through and slaughtering people, Tailfeather Woman, a Dakota person, came through a swamp for three days and this vision came to her for peace with the Ojibwe through this drum. So she brought the example of this drum to the Ojibwe, almost as a treaty. Traditionally, before Europeans came, that was how treaties were made – through ceremony, through these gestures of goodwill. And so we have this big drum dance and style of drum that was a gift from the Dakota people. So I wanted to play with some of those signifiers of peace and reconciliation between the Dakota and the Ojibwe, also making peace with the Earth.
ET: Right. You wrote something earlier that was of interest to me. When I look at the train, my associations are overwhelmingly positive, because I think “oh, this is the lesser evil of cars.” How it’s positive for the environment to have these trains. But you wrote that there is this whole history of trains being colonizers of land, of really altering the landscape of communities, not just in the Twin Cities. And so, as you’re talking about two sides, I just wanted to bring that up and to ask – has your view of trains changed at all through this project?
AC: (Laughing) It is a more environmental option. I don’t know if you can redeem what happened with Westward expansion.
Even in India and Africa, trains – they’re the original pipelines. People and guns and resources were transported that way. So yeah, trains were devastating in North America. But now that the track is laid and here to stay, it seems like if you’re gonna move a lot of people and you’re going to live densely, trains are such a better option than everyone having their own little mobile unit that pumps waste into the air that we all breathe.
And that’s the other thing about water is life. Cars pump out stuff that we breathe into our bodies, but water is another element where there’s no such thing as a closed system. We are all made up of water. The earth is covered with water in the same ratio as human bodies are made up of water. We drink it. We excrete it. You know, it starts this big cycle and that shows how we’re also all so interconnected. Through water, air, we are very literally and very physically connected to each other and to our environment. And so when that is poisoned, it’s our bodies. What we’re sacrificing is our bodies when we sacrifice the water. So that’s something important to think about with travel.
ET: Right. Speaking of redeeming, we as a Northern Spark staff have been talking a lot about action, and about how actions are so necessary in this time but also has to be more creative than the first options that come to mind. Call your senator. I mean, that’s important too, but action is like water. It doesn’t have to be a closed system. It can be fluid and divergent and it can take many forms. It can be much more multifaceted than we often give it credit for in “advocate language.” So for you, you’ve used some verbs – you’ve used the words “uniting,” and you’ve used the words “healing” – but what did you perceive as your action being while you were designing this train wrap? And is there an action that you hope that people will be inspired to do after seeing this train?
AC: Well for the people who study the language, who know it, I hope it’s a re-affirmation for them. But for the people who don’t and are like, “not my language,” I hope that they’re curious. I put syllabics on one side. It’s post-invasion, but it’s a set way of writing. The Inuit people use it often in Canada, and it works really well in Ojibwe too. And so I think when people see a character set they’re not familiar with, there is a natural curiosity of “what language is that?” I think it’s good that there’s not a lot of answers in the train itself. There’s not an explanation at the bottom that says, “this is Ojibwe language, this is Dakota language.” So I’m hoping that there is a little bit of curiosity when people see it. ‘Cause I mean, you can’t not see a giant train.
ET: Exactly. So, last question, again in the vein of action. This is the second year of our theme Climate Chaos Climate Rising, and this year – especially with the greater cultural climate – Northern Spark staff has been talking about people rising, rising with action. And so I’m wondering, what would that look like for you – people rising?
AC: So, at least in a lot of Native American resistance movements, it’s not just anger and marching. I mean, marching is great. It’s like a mini revolution. But historically, dance is a part of our resistance movements. Even in the example of the Dakota drum, the big drum ceremony. That was a dance. That was a social gathering around a drum. It was people sharing a heartbeat, a rhythm. There were also the ghost dances in North America. It became kind of a resistance movement. Tribes came together and do this dance together and in a way it was supposed to lead to decolonization. So there’s this really rich history of actions and movements that are not like punching someone or shooting a gun or another form of violence. It’s still emotional. It’s still moving your body. You feel like you’re participating physically. But that’s what I think of when I think of people rising. It’s a mass, it’s not individuals. We’re all sharing the same resources, air and water. It has nothing to do with your personal economy. You can’t take it personally. You have to take it collectively. So I like to think of people rising as agency. We have to link arms –
ET: We have to get on the train together
AC: (Laughing) Yeah, we all have to get on the train!
Andrea Carlson lives and works in Chicago IL, and Saint Paul MN. Her Anishinaabe (Ojibwe), French and Scandinavian heritage provides a rich foundation for her investigations of cultural consumption, history and identity, and the intrinsic power of storytelling.
Elle Thoni is the Assistant Curator at Northern Lights.mn