From the moment of first contact over five hundred years ago, the American Indian nations and white Euro-American colonial-settlers found themselves caught in a tragic struggle: it was a clash between cultures, peoples, ideologies, and civilizations. Fundamentally it was a clash over the land itself: lands that the original inhabitants called home and that the American colonial-settlers coveted for themselves and eventually took through a brutal combination of violent conquest and disingenuous diplomatic maneuverings. This is a story of sorrow and tragedy spanning centuries, affecting both indigenous and colonial-settler communities alike with stories of loss and pain that can never be redeemed, only acknowledged and remembered. The purpose of the project is to take in the full sweep of the nation-defining events and question how this history continues to resonate today in relation to the acts of memorialization and commemoration that have been permanently etched in word and monument onto the landscape.
The images offer a visual timeline of that history of conflict and dispossession. Each photograph made on location around the time of the anniversary of each event, bears witness to a land forever haunted by this past and how we have come to remember that history today. The formal compositions of the photographs illustrate the place where this tragic history continues to reside as epic American myth in the collective conscience of the American people, a myth predominantly defined by the settler-colonial experience. The photographic treatment of these landscapes questions the nation-defining idea of “Manifest Destiny” that those early American Romantic paintings celebrated in their time by revealing a deliberate tension in the natural splendor set against the tragic history that scars the land to this day.
The project’s title, “So Long as the Grasses Grow and the Waters Flow,” is based on a common phrase employed by the United States in its treaty negotiations with Native American tribes. Today those words are tinged with a sad irony as they have come to represent America’s failure to keep those promises and treaty obligations throughout its history. While those bucolic words reinforce the formal beauty of the landscape itself, each image is haunted by centuries of conflict and dispossession. In the words of Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux, “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one: they promised to take our land and they took it.”