Native American exhibit at Met Museum explores water politics: NPR


Cara Romero, “Memory of Water, 2015

Cara Romero/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


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Cara Romero/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Cara Romero, “Memory of Water, 2015

Cara Romero/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Perhaps the most surprising item in the Water Memories exhibit now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is the denim jacket. It’s a replica Wrangler, with a red felt thunderbolt on the back and a line of blue beads on the sleeves and waist.

Yet the exhibit is about the importance of water to Native American tribal nations and how it is depicted in their art. How about the jacket?

“The thunderbird is a sacred image for the Anishinaabe people,” said Patricia Norby Marroquin, exhibit curator. “It’s actually a thundercloud.”

The beads represent water droplets, she said. The thunderbird and beads were added by then-19-year-old Rick St. Germain and his mother, Saxon St. Germain, of The Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin.

Rick St. Germain wore the jacket when he participated in the Native American occupation of Winter Dam in Wisconsin in the early 1970s. Norby saw the jacket in a small museum in the Midwest and knew he needed it in the exhibit because he wanted to represent different generations of Native Americans and explore how their art speaks to their activity around the water.


This denim jacket owned by Rick St. Germaine, represents thunderclouds – and also strength. It was provided for the exhibit by the Chippewa Valley Museum.

Anna-Marie Kellen/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


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Anna-Marie Kellen/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


This denim jacket owned by Rick St. Germaine, represents thunderclouds – and also strength. It was provided for the exhibit by the Chippewa Valley Museum.

Anna-Marie Kellen/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Norby is Purépecha; her family is from Pueblo in Mexico. She was the museum’s first curator of Native American art, and “Water Memories” was the first exhibition she organized at the Met.

“I think [the exhibit] beautifully reveals your indigenous and ecological approach,” Sylvia Yount, the curator in charge of the museum’s American wing, told Norby as they toured.

Just a few years ago, Native American art in the museum was joined by art from places like Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. But in 2017, Charles and Valerie Dyker pledged important gifts, donations and loans from their collection to the museum. As a result, the museum is moving its Native American art to where it always belonged, Yount said: the American Wing.

“Water Memories” accompanies the intricately beaded clothing and other objects in the Native American Art Galleries. But Water Memories tells a story.

“As you go through the exhibit, you’ll realize that what we’re doing is creating a current, a flow of stories and memories,” Norby said.

The exhibition explores the many uses of water – for fishing, for travel, for ritual, for play. But it also shows how political water is. US energy companies have flooded tribal land by building dams; a photograph by Carla Romero shows two Native Americans submerged in water, “still and suspended in a drowned landscape,” according to the artist’s website. And a documentary-style video from Cannupa Hanska Luger shows a line of “water protectors” holding their mirror shields at Standing Rock Preserve. They slide on the snow to form a spiral – it represents a giant water snake.

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Norby’s scholarship as an art historian is grounded in environmental activism, she said. Her research focuses on the connections between agricultural industry, fine arts, and water rights in the Southwest. Taking a political stand may be new to the Met, she said, but not to her.

“I want people to walk away understanding that we all have a role to play in protecting freshwater sources,” Norby said. “That we all have intimate relationships with water and that without fresh water we will not survive.”

All objects are connected to water in some way – finely crafted glass lamps once contained oil from whales; the elaborate baskets were made by softening the cane in water. But the exhibit is in a fine arts museum, not an anthropological one, so there are many wonderful, provocative objects, such as a canoe frame full of feathers by Truman T. Lowe; a triptych of a beach landscape with an ominous, dark angel at its center by Fritz Schölder; and a pile of what looks like shiny, hollow whale teeth on a weathered dock.

This piece, by Shinnecock artist Courtney M. Leonard, is one of Norby’s favorites because of how deeply personal it is. And she loves the aesthetic of these teeth.

“They glow. They are beautiful. They are pearly. You almost want to reach out and touch them because of their smooth texture,” she said. Then she laughed. “But we strongly recommend that people do not do that here at the museum.”


Fritz Schölder’s Beach Possession looms over a shiny pile of whale teeth called Beach Journal 22/Breach #2 by Courtney M. Leonard.

Anna-Marie Kellen/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


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Anna-Marie Kellen/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Fritz Schölder’s Beach Possession looms over a shiny pile of whale teeth called Beach Journal 22/Breach #2 by Courtney M. Leonard.

Anna-Marie Kellen/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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