The Uncompromising Hand: an interview with Andrea Carlson

Sarah Peters



Owámniomni/Manidoo Minisiniban/Spirit Island. Original photograph from the Minnesota Historical Society, altered by Andrea Carlson.


Andrea Carlson’s new artwork The Uncompromising Hand, was commissioned as part of Illuminate the Lock, a series of artist interventions using the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock & Dam as an experimental projection site.  Carlson’s piece delves poetically into a lost element of the river landscape, Spirit Island.  Northern’s Director of Public Engagement Sarah Peters posed a handful of questions to Carlson about her piece.  


What was Spirit Island? When did you first learn about this place?
Spirit Island was a small limestone island that once sat just downstream of Stone Arch Bridge in downtown Minneapolis. It was a sacred place to the Dakota people. It faced constant erosion by the river, collapsed at one point, and was slowly quarried over the course of several decades. It was fully removed and dredged to make way for passing river boats when the lock was built on the St. Anthony Falls in the 1960’s.

I graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2003 with a Bachelor in Art and American Indian Studies. I learned about the island in a casual conversation while hanging out with some grad students at Scott Hall, the home-base of American Indian Studies at the U of M. I looked up some images of it and from then on, I’ve imagined the island in the river whenever I crossed Stone Arch Bridge. It might seem strange to fantasize about a place I’ve never seen, but I find myself imagining landscapes without buildings or industrial development all the time. A few years back I found myself driving up to Winnipeg several times and would imagine the ancient lake Agassiz that is now a flat area of land, a lake bed. Once you learn that a place existed or has been altered, it is hard to avoid imagining it. I wonder if people who grew up seeing mountain tops in West Virginia imagine them before mining, or superimpose their shape over the sky where they once stood. No matter what your politics dictate, I can only imagine a feeling of dread or loss when one’s familiar environment is tossed into upheaval.

How would you describe your cultural relationship to Spirit Island?
Spirit Island was a sacred site to the Dakota. I’m not Dakota, I’m Anishinaabe. Many Anishinaabe sacred places were first Dakota sacred places. Our treaties with each other dictated that we continued to show respect and give offerings or ceremony to those who occupy those spaces. Some sacred sites of Anishinaabe people are places where battles were fought between ourselves and the Dakota. When the Dakota and Anishinaabe sought peace, we exchanged ceremonies, such as the Big Drum, and we continue these practices because we treat our agreements with integrity (and they happen to be socially important and enjoyable). There is historic conflict between the Dakota and Anishinaabe, but there is also a historic bond that continues as solidarity, co-resistance and mutual respect. I feel my relationship to this island, that I’ve never seen outside of photographs, is emotional more than cultural.

The Uncompromising Hand  involves historic photographs, maps, and the clean, striking line drawings we know from your work. It also features written language. Tell us about the roll of words in this piece. For one, how did you decide which phrases and languages to include?
As a student at the U of M, I was required to be proficient in a “foreign language” meaning “in addition to English.” Native students were bemused that Indigenous languages counted as part of a “foreign” language core. Language is a “big tool” of colonization. It affects our world views. For example, English is noun-heavy. An emphasis on objects, being, and ownership are important to a possessive world view. Anishinaabemowin is verb-based and an emphasis is placed on the relationship and action between things. But place names are very important because they are out in the public sphere and have been used to celebrate some real villains in Minneapolis. If you are against the public intimidation that monuments to Robert E. Lee were to have on Black people in the South, try and stop calling Bde Maka Ska by the name of Calhoun. I find it remarkable that Spirit Island was called “Spirit” in English. Often, sacred places that are renamed by settlers are called names meant to strike fear in the hearts of Christians, such as “Devil’s Tower”, “Devil’s Kettle” or “Witch Tree.” Maybe that is why those places are still with us, so we don’t mess with the devil. I digress. The words are in Dakota, English and Anishinaabemowin (in that order below) and they are place names of the area:


Owámniomni – turbulent waters – Spirit Island – Manidoo Minisiniban

Dakhóta Makhóčhe – Dakota Land – Bwaanaki

Wakpá Tháŋka – great river – Gichi Ziibi

Ȟaȟáwakpa – River of the Waterfalls – Gaakaabikaang


Now tell us about the roll of drawing, which you know more than many, is such a careful act of seeing. Did you learn anything different about Spirit Island from drawing it than from studying the photographs?
The piece is called “The Uncompromising Hand” for a number of reasons. Firstly, the title of the piece comes from an article written in 1900. Minneapolis Tribune writer Frank O’Brien wrote with a bit of emotion, describing the island as, “That beauty spot of nature which has so recently disappeared by the uncompromising hand of man, to make room for the (paddle) wheels of progress.” (Minneapolis Tribune, January 7, 1900). This “uncompromising hand” seems to be severed from the body, like a hand without reason: all action, no thought. We are seeing the “uncompromising hand” of industrialization at work all over even to this day. And to what ends? The Upper St Anthony Lock and Dam was in use for a little over 50 years. That is only a blip on the timeline of the river.

The second reason is drawing. While I was researching for this project, I noticed that so many proposals for the “development” of the river started off as drawings, hand-rendered maps and ideation renderings by architectural firms. These artists had to imagine a cemented waterfall. They had to imagine in a lock and dam and imagine out some islands. To communicate this potential future they had to illustrate it. The destruction of Spirit Island started off as a drawing without it.

Although the piece relies on photographs of the island, it seemed important that I draw it and that the text be written in hand lettering. There is an intimacy that is inherent to drawing something, you can see the near muscle memory of drawing and writing. I was hoping to convey more intimacy and that is less mechanical. Which is ironic considering the title.   

While projected directly on the Lock wall, your project looks beyond the Lock to the river and what was once there.  What was your impression of the Lock prior to this project? Has that changed?
I’ve portaged canoes before, so I can see how useful a lock is. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film Fitzcarraldo, but the idea of portaging a large river boat past St. Anthony Falls seems a bit hazardous. The last time I watched the Lock being used, it was full of kayakers. That is to say, that maybe the Lock has run its course. It is my understanding that the decommissioning of the Lock is to prevent a destructive  invasive species from traveling even further up the river. This is the world we live in now. I’ve been thinking of oil pipelines lately. We have numerous examples of the best laid plans of mice and men, to only add these things to a growing list of projects that end up abandoned or turned into art spaces.

You’ve said this project is not to be seen as a lament of the past, but a way to imagine alternative futures and Indigenous futures. How does the past help us do this? What does Spirit Island help us imagine, at the Lock and Dam, or anywhere?

In other words, to close, what is Spirit Island?
Indigenous people get the honor of occupying a tragic space within dominant culture’s fantasy. It is instantly exhausting. There is no future there, there isn’t even a present. I appreciate how N. Scott Momaday has taken the idea of tragedy and placed it fully within our agency. He said, “We are what we imagine. Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves… The greatest tragedy that can befall us is to go unimagined.” I think it is  very important to remember that we have a say in our futures. We have a say in how we are to be addressed and understood. And this imagining of ourselves better be complex, nuanced and rich. If it isn’t, than we can be easily dismissed on simple, singular grounds.

There is also power in slight gestures, like drawings. If drawings can initiate the destruction of an island, can drawing also aid in imagining ourselves richly, dynamic and complex? I don’t want to participate in making tragic or romantic art that places groups of people in the past. Indigenous people have felt the denial of contemporaneity. I’m making work that respects the past with an eye towards the future. Calling more lakes by their original Dakota names is our future. Fighting fish that fling their bodies in our faces is our future. Filtering oil out of our drinking water might also be our future, but not without a fight. Spirit Island is an example of decisions being made without thinking seven generations into the future.

The Uncompromising Hand will be on view Friday, September 29 and Saturday, September 30, 2017 from 8-10:30 pm at the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock & Dam in Minneapolis, MN. 


Illuminate the Lock is presented by Northern, Mississippi Park Connection, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area with support from St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board and the US Army Corp of Engineers.