Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Chicago-based artist Andrea Carlson made a splash in 2021 when her piece “You are on Potawatomi Land” was installed along the RiverWalk in downtown Chicago. It is comprised of five banners, each 15’ high with a total width of 266’. They read “Bodéwadmikik ėthë yéyék/You are on Potawatomi Land” in bright red letters. The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) of Chicago approached her to create a piece of public artwork, which she worked on for a year before installation along the river.
She was inspired after learning about Williams v. City of Chicago, a Supreme Court case from 1917, also known as the Sandbar Decision. The Pokagon Band sued for ownership of the shoreline of what is now the Chicago River along Lake Michigan where the banners now sit. The court sided with the city despite metropolitan expansion of the shoreline into unceded land never outlined in any previous treaty, including the treaties of Greenville and Chicago.
How did you end up creating the mural?
I was considering what, along the river, could be said or what artwork could go in this public space that would have the most meaning. … and I learned about the Williams v. City of Chicago case and that the Pokagon Band had come back for the lake shore that had been filled in and had lost the case in the Supreme Court in 1917. And I think that that is really important is when a Nation comes back for their land that that be remembered and honored.
They had a really strong case. When I decided to put, “You’re on Potawatomi land” in Potawatomi and English there, I was thinking of that particular case. The location is also close to a Blackhawks (Chicago ice hockey team) memorabilia store. It’s the DuSable Bridge (named after Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the first non-Indigenous settler of the area) right there on Michigan Avenue that has an image of a dead Native man on those bridge houses. The location is across the street from Pioneer Park, where du Sable and (his Potawatomi wife) Kitihawa lived.
I decided to just make an artwork that would foreground that we are on Potawatomi land — a very simply-put land acknowledgment with this larger history. And I didn’t do “You’re on an Anishnabe land” or “You’re on Three Councils land” because I felt that with the Potawatomi coming back for that built-out land, that that was a strong enough case. Had they won that court case, we wouldn’t question whose land it was. It would belong to Potawatomi and the seven bands that the (Pokagon Band) Potawatomi were suing on behalf of. Also, the language of “You’re on Potawatomi land,” it’s not in past tense. It’s in present tense. It’s this statement of perpetual belonging.
How did you decide on the look of the mural and how it would use the huge outdoor space?
Because that’s a former shoreline that used to all be underwater, I put in a horizon line, a shore, like a seascape. And then I put these different signifiers of Anishnabe folks — some beadwork, mountains and stuff at the bottom. I made sure that the color palette of the paintings that are behind the text would work well with a really bold red font and color for the “You’re on Potawatomi land.” I didn’t want the text to get lost in the imagery. I wanted it to be bold and that you could see it across the river.
When I was designing this, I was very adamant that the Potawatomi goes first, but then when it’s outside, it kind of got lost a little bit in the trees. But I think it uncovers itself as you walk along the RiverWalk. You come around the corner, and then you see the Potawatomi language the size of a building. It’s remarkable real estate. It’s such a huge section of the river because the banners are like 50 feet long each. … And it’s right near where the architecture tours are, where everyone gets on the boat and learns the story of the City of Chicago. And why not start a land acknowledgment there when so many people learn about Chicago there at that docking point for the architectural tours?
How long did it take you to come up with the idea for “You’re on Potawatomi land”?
When I was asked, “Do you want to work with these banners?” I knew right away it was going to be “You’re on Potawatomi land.” And that’s why I said yes because I had an idea ready to go. I knew what it needed to say. … I knew what I wanted it to have on it. I knew I wanted it to have bright red text that was affirmative to Potawatomi belonging in Chicago. But then the background and stuff, I thought, “Oh, this should be like an infinite shoreline. It should kind of repair, show the water there instead of the buildings.”
When was it revealed and finally complete?
It was like right in the heart of the pandemic, end of 2020, early 2021. A lot of people weren’t outside then, or they were outside to be able to get some fresh air. But the city still seemed kind of a little bit like a ghost town when they went up.
My hope is that through this piece and through other public artworks that people can’t afford to be ignorant about Native people anymore. They can’t claim that they’re not aware that Native people even exist. … I’ve been trying to think of ways where if my work is going to engage publicly where Native people see it and I disappear as the artist, it doesn’t matter who the artist is. It’s beloved and held by the community in a way where my name could disappear. It stands alone as far as meaning for Native folks. That was part of the goal, and I like that I kind of achieved it. It’s a statement of truth and solidarity.
What kind of feedback have you gotten?
I’ve been told (by Ojibwe and Odawa peoples), “It wasn’t just the Potawatomi. We’re part of Chicago.” And it’s like, “Oh, yeah,” but when it comes to that case and when it comes to this very particular area of Chicago, there’s a history there. … If you look at the traditional homelands before the Trail of Death and before some really aggressive removal that Illinois did of Potawatomi folks, the very heart of Potawatomi territory is where Chicago is located now.
And of course, the feedback I’ve loved the best is Potawatomi folks taking selfies in front of it or just gathering around it and being so incredibly proud of it, or seeing conversations online like, “Oh, can you believe that this is here?” That stuff just feeds me. That just makes me feel like it’s good to be an artist and it’s good to have these stages that we can make meaningful work on.
Is there anything else that you want everyone to know about the banners?
If you’re in Chicago, definitely come take a selfie with it. I’m hoping that going forward that that area will always be a place for Potawatomi signage and identity. That’s the hope and dream, that it’s not about me. It’s about a place. It’s about land. … And I want Potawatomi folks, no matter where they live in diaspora, if you’re in Chicago, I want you to feel like that’s the homeland, that that’s the center, that that’s a place where Potawatomi people feel welcome. That’s the goal in the future is to make sure that Chicago feels like home.