A shared humanity: ‘All My Relations’ sculpture in downtown Muskegon honors Native culture

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Everyone is looking up, their eyes set on swirling circles moving towards the sky—on a sculpture that, despite being 12,000 pounds of granite, seems to soar.

They start moving towards it, this 16.5-foot-tall piece of art named “Niikonii Kiinaa,” or “All My Relations.” Some put their hands on it and crane their necks, their eyes traveling towards the top of this tower, a Canadian black granite column that now stands outside the Muskegon County Visitors Center at 610 W. Western Ave. in downtown Muskegon.

For the most part, people are silent, taking it in. One man, who lives nearby and has just gotten out of the hospital, says he is grateful to have the chance to see it. That it’s powerful. And beautiful. Others have driven for hours to see it. Later, some say they saw faces in it, others say light.

Most importantly, say those gathered for the sculpture’s unveiling ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 4, the artwork is about honoring the region’s Native community, about respecting, and connecting with, the spirit, stories and values of the Anishinaabe, the indigenous people of the Great Lakes who migrated west to Michigan from North America’s eastern shores as early as the first century.

“Part of what I do, my purpose in life, is to tell the stories of my people,” Anishinaabe artist Jason Quigno says at Thursday’s unveiling. “I feel it’s my part to lay the stories down, the beliefs, the feelings, for future generations. It’s to honor my people. This [sculpture] will be here for all people for thousands of years.

Jason Quigno at the unveiling of his sculpture, “Niikonii Kiinaa.”

Inspired by the Anishinaabe’s “Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers”love respect, honesty, bravery truth, humility, and wisdom—the column features seven swirling circles on each of its four sides to represent the core values of what is needed for a community to thrive. Each of the piece’s carved circles connects to every other circle through continuous flowing lines, which curve and twist to represent the smoke from the sacred pipe and fires carrying people’s prayers to the Creator. Surrounding the sculpture are four hand-carved benches made of natural stone boulders from West Michigan.

“I always wanted to do something on this scale,” Quigno says. “The way the circles are interconnected—we’re all interconnected. All people, we’re all related and come from the same place, from this earth. It represents us.”

Niikonii Kiinaa stands outside the Muskegon County Visitors Center at 610 W. Western Ave. in downtown Muskegon.

An act of listening: Moving the sculpture to the Visitors Center

Originally, Niikonii Kiinaa had been slated for installation in the Old Indian Cemetery, located on Morris Avenue by First Street, but following objections from Joe Genia, a longstanding elder of Muskegon’s Native community and a member of the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians, and Ron Yob, the Tribal Chief of the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians, it was decided to place the sculpture outside the Visitors Center. Concerns from Genia and Yob were raised after a concrete walkway and pedestal were installed at the cemetery this past summer.

“The Grand River Band of Ottawa People are a part of the Great Ottawa Nation,” Genia said in an August statement. “We are indigenous to the Great Lakes Region. We evolved with this place. We are as much a part of this indigenous environment as every other life form that evolved her with us.”

“This sacred land is our umbilical cord to that indigenous world and our ancestors that evolved here over thousands of years,” Genia continued. “We are still here. We rely on that connected to our sacred land and our ancestors to continue to live and evolve as a people. For those reasons and more that would take many years for an outsider to learn and understand, this is a place of significant spiritual power  and should never be disturbed in the manner that it was.”

Ultimately, Quigno says, the sculpture’s new home is the best space for it.

“This sculpture is not supposed to be about negativity; it’s supposed to be about honor,” Quigno says at a talk he gave at the Muskegon Museum of Art following the unveiling. “The place it is now is the perfect place; it worked out how it’s supposed to.”

The original people: Honoring Muskegon’s Native community

Inspired by the Muskegon Museum of Art’s Edward Curtis exhibit and conversations centered around local Native history, former MMA Executive Director Judith Hayner launched efforts to bring this sculpture to Muskegon in order to have a more permanent tribute to the region’s indigenous community. Last year, the museum showcased what was likely the largest Curtis exhibit ever, featuring an extensive collection of photographs, original field recordings of Native music, and more from Curtis’ project titled “The North American Indian.” Begun in 1907 and ending in 1930, the project aimed to document 80 Native tribes living west of the Mississippi River, as well as in Canada.

Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Tribal Ogema Larry Romanelli passes around “sema,” or tobacco, to those gathered for the sculpture unveiling. Native Americans believe that sema is the first gift from the Creator, or Gitchi Manitou. Romanelli shares it so individuals could hold it while speaking with their Creator.

Hayner worked with Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Tribal Ogema Larry Romanelli on the sculpture project, as well as on the Curtis exhibit, and the two were determined to find a piece of art that would both honor the region’s indigenous people, as well as serve as a source of education for those who know little about the Native community.

Acquisition and placement of the sculpture was a joint effort of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, the Downtown Arts Committee, the City of Muskegon and the Muskegon Museum of Art.  Support for the sculpture came from private donors, the Michigan Council for Arts and Community Affairs, and the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.

“This stemmed from the Curtis art exhibit—it was so successful that we wanted to make sure we represented Native Americans for a long time,” says Romanelli, who has served as the elected leader of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians for the past 12 years.

“It’s known the Anishnabek people have been here for centuries,” continues Romanelli. “Anishnabek translates to ‘the original people.’ We call ourselves the original people.”

Additionally, Romanelli says, the sculpture will help to further educate individuals about Anishinaabe culture and the impact the indigenous community has had on the area—from the name ‘Muskegon’ being derived from the Ottawa term ‘Masquigon,’ which means marshy river or swamp to area highways, including U.S. 31 and I-96, being built along Native trails.

“We’ve been trying to bring back more of our culture—who we are and why we’re here, so I want to thank you,” Romanelli says during Thursday’s unveiling. Later, in an interview with the Muskegon Times, the tribal leader says he hopes the increased awareness regarding Anishinaabe culture will translate to more comprehensive Native studies in area schools.

“I think if we can just get more information in our schools and colleges, it will benefit all of us,” Romanelli says. “If you look at most textbooks, we just get one or two pages, and they talk about Thanksgiving, primarily. If people understood the importance of our people, they would be fascinated.”

Community members spend time with the sculpture during Thursday’s unveiling.

Both Hayner and Romanelli voice deep praise for Quigno, a nationally acclaimed artist who has exhibited his work around the globe, is a member of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe and is by heritage an Ottawa Indian. The artist too is a direct descendant of Chief Cobmoosa, also known as the Great Walker, one of the most prominent 19th century Grand River Ottawa leaders.

“Jason’s work always reflects his culture; that’s why I love what he does,” Hayner says of Quigno, who lives in Grand Rapids and is represented by LaFontsee Galleries.

Ultimately, Quigno says, the work is meant to take on a multitude of meanings for its viewers—he knows that, over time, individuals may interpret it differently than we do now, may connect to its story in ways we have yet to understand. For those involved with the sculpture project, that future holds an important promise: that all people in our community, and beyond, will have a deep understanding and appreciation of Native history and culture—and how their own humanity is tied to that knowledge, and to the indigenous community.

“Niikonii Kiinaa is a lasting tribute to the shared humanity with us all,” reads the plaque standing by the sculpture. “With this work, the artist hopes to remind us how we are all connected as we interact with each other, while beautifully conveying a deep respect for the people that were first on this land.”

Story and photos by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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