Mni Wiconi: Water is Life
by Christina Dana, former Gallery Assistant at The Center
Cannupa Hanska Luger describes himself as a multi-disciplinary communicator. After spending an afternoon with him and his exhibit Each Line is a Song. Every Shape is a Story at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, it would be difficult to call him anything else. As an interviewee, he is above all earnest. His passion and history are reflected in the things he says and the energy with which he says them -whether we’re talking about indigenous identity, art, or politics. Luger has bound all of these elements into an engaging and cohesive voice.
Our conversation shared two common threads with Luger’s mural: water and the Earth. The importance of these topics is further emphasized because both the inspiration of Luger’s piece and his shirt read “MNI WICONI,” which is Lakota for “water is life.” Cannupa describes human and tribe geography as collections of freestanding islands on the ocean of the United States. He also tells me that his studio in Santa Fe is an island and his wife a seabird who comes to roost and critique his art. Aptly enough, Luger’s first career aspirations were in oceanography. The Lakota people’s history and creation story speak of them as a river people. Water, Luger reminds me, makes up 70% of what we are. It is the resource we share both as a community and in our physical composition.
Each Line is a Song. Every Shape is a Story is a yarn and nail sketch centering on three women encapsulated by a river and its surrounding landscape. When first approached with the opportunity to showcase indigenous stories at The Center, Luger had a different design in mind. However after returning to Standing Rock Reservation (home to both the Lakota people and the highly contested Dakota Access Pipeline) to attend a protest, the immediacy of the pipeline debate and Luger’s own deep-rooted identity as a man of the Lakota demanded this change in composition. With this piece, Luger wants to express the notion that “we are all humans - and this is not our land, we are its people.” Each Line is a Song. Every Shape is a Story portrays three intergenerational women who have inspired Luger’s work. Even though these women come directly from his own life, Luger prefers for them to remain nameless as it helps bolster the connection between them and the viewer: we are all made from water and we all come from the land.
Towards the end of our interview, I started to press Luger for any thoughts or wisdom with which to prepare potential viewers and was met with nothing. “Whatever you take from it,” he says, “is sincere, honest, and the true meaning of the piece.” Luger allows viewers to finish this piece for him with whatever life experience(s) they bring to the table. Even though he was hesitant to call it generous, I see this as a gift. And the best way to pay that gift back is to engage with the art, the land, and each other. In truth, we are all just water anyway.