A Toll on Earth, one of five installations in Virga: The Hunt for Water
Coconino Center for the Arts, Flagstaff, AZ, 2013 | Back to Virga Main Page
Materials: steel carousel, motor, bison skulls, 2000 lbs cornmeal, Ponderosa pine wood
In the 19th century, the species – Bison bison – was decimated. Hundreds of thousands of bleached bones were collected off the prairie and shipped to one of four processing centers – in Detroit, St. Louis, Philadelphia, or Baltimore – for the making of fertilizer for farming. This wholesale slaughter of the bison was warranted by the federal government in its desire to rid the land of the Native Peoples who inhabited the Great Plains.
In her book The Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder writes:
“Why do they do that, Ma?” Laura asked. “Why do they go west?”
“They have to,” Ma said.
“Why do they have to?”
“The government makes them, Laura,” said Pa. “Now go to sleep.”
He played the fiddle softly for a while. Then Laura asked, “Please, Pa, can I ask just one more question?”
“May I,” asked Ma.
Larua began again. “Pa, please, may I -“
“What is it?” Pa asked. It was not polite for little girls to interrupt, but of course Pa could do it.
“Will the government make these Indians go west?”
“Yes,” Pa said. “When white settlers come into the country, the Indians have to move on. The government is going to move these Indians farther west, any time now. That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?”
“Yes, Pa,” Laura said. “But, Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won’t it make the Indians mad to have to -“
“No more questions, Laura,” Pa said, firmly. “Go to sleep.”
When I first created this sculpture in 1998, the Kosovo War was going on in Yugoslavia, and Sarajevo was under siege. Thousands of civilians were losing their lives by sniper fire by Serb forces. I wondered at the time, how can such a thing happen? I remember thinking that we as a human species have become prisoners of our own history, repeating ourselves, again and again.