Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

COACHELLA VALLEY, California — The letters tower 45 feet above a picturesque swath of desert on the edge of mountains in southern California, defiantly sending out a message for the world.

INDIAN LAND.

It’s a subtle reference to the HOLLYWOOD sign just two hours away — a sign that once spelled out HOLLYWOODLAND to promote a development for whites only. But it carries a not-so-subtle message, too: Stolen lands should be returned.

The installation, entitled “Never Forget,” by artist Nicholas Galanin, is one of 13 pieces from an array of artists commissioned for the Desert X 2021 exhibition, which debuted March 12 and is set to run through July 6. It is produced by The Desert Biennial, a nonprofit group that installs recurring international art exhibitions based on the principles of the Land Art movement that emerged in the 1960s.

Galanin, a Tlingit and Unangax̂ artist and musician, goes beyond sending a message of land repatriation, however. He is working to raise funds to acquire titles to transfer lands to local Indigenous communities, and has set up a GoFundMe account to help purchase the land near “Never Forget” so it can be returned to the local Cahuilla tribe.

“Over the years I have worked with land issues, and this was an ideal subject to pair with place, as it is close to Hollywood, California, and I could make a statement of that,” Galanin said, from his home studio in Sitka, Alaska.

“The entertainment industry is here from the other Hollywoodland, so I was allowed to pick the place, and challenge land ownership,” he said. “This is a brand new piece; it was constructed on site in the desert. I hope it will travel to other locations after this that need attention, as it will have a different meaning in different spaces. I invite the viewer to participate in what this means.”

Nicholas Galanin - Courtesy Native Arts and Cultures Foundation

Desert X paid tribute to the tribe in a recent statement on its website and on the GoFundMe site.

“We acknowledge the Cahuilla People as the original stewards of the land on which Desert X takes place,” the organization said. “We are grateful to have the opportunity to work with the Indigenous people in this place. We pay our respect to the Cahuilla People, past, present and emerging, who have been here since time immemorial.”

Ancestral lands

With balmy weather, picturesque mountains and hot springs, the valley had been the longtime home to the Cahuilla and Morongo Indians when the HOLLYWOODLAND sign went up in the early 1920s.

By then, Palm Springs was becoming a vacation spot for the film industry, since studio contracts limited actors’ travel.

The location for “Never Forget” is tied to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, whose current land ownership is a complicated checkerboard pattern scattered across Palm Springs. The artwork sits at an entrance to the Cahuilla reservation.

An art installation by Nicholas Galanin sits at the entrance to the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation in southern California. The installation is part of 13 pieces as part of Desert X 2021 in Coachella Valley, and is set to remain in place until July 6, 2021. (Photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy of the artist and Desert X)

The region is heavily invested in tourism, hot springs resorts, golf and the arts, and home to two large, annual concerts, Coachella and Stagecoach.

The fundraiser so far has raised about $18,000 of the $300,000 it hopes to reach. Officials with the Cahuilla tribe, after several requests, said they were reserving comment.

Related: Want to see the other artwork in Desert X 2021? See for yourself

The Cahuilla tribal citizens have lived in the Palm Springs area for thousands of years, calling it Sec-he, for boiling water, for the hot mineral springs. The Spaniards called it agua caliente, which means hot water.

In 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant set aside lands for the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation, which was expanded by President Rutherford B. Hayes to more than 30,000 acres. Allotments of land to members was finalized in 1959. All combined, the tribe remains the largest single land owner in Palm Springs, according to the tribal website.

The Agua Caliente Band, a federally recognized tribe, operates two 18-hole golf courses and casinos in Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage.

The Morongo Band of Mission Indians, also a federally recognized tribe, make their home on the 35,000-acre Morongo Indian Reservation, which sits closer to Los Angeles in the Morongo Valley at the feet of the San Gorgonio and San Jacinto mountains.

The Morongo reservation was also created by order of Grant in 1876. The tribe is now the largest private sector employer in the region, operating non-gaming businesses and the $250-million Morongo Casino, Resort and Spa, which is considered one of the largest tribal gaming facilities in the country, according to the tribe’s website.

Decades of protest

Galanin says that the “Never Forget” installation, in word and location, “refuses to legitimize the settler occupation.”

Though the installation is sanctioned, well-funded and curated, the words INDIAN LAND have a storied history.

The use of the words dates back to at least the occupation of Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971, when the beginnings of the American Indian Movement took over the abandoned federal prison on an island near San Francisco. They painted INDIAN LAND in red paint on the outer walls of the prison to proclaim the takeover.

In 2016, Native artist Jaque Fragua, on a dare and as homage, painted over a temporary white-paneled construction wall at the corner of South Eighth and Main streets in Los Angeles with eight-foot-tall red letters, “This Is Indian Land.”

“It was just a clear-sighted statement,” he has said of the street art, “but people thought it was a threat. It was pretty abrasive and aggressive and raw. It had this edgy feel to it, so people thought it was violent. I didn’t think anything of it, besides, ‘I did a civic duty.'”

The words surfaced again in 2016 in protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Randall Akee, associate professor of public policy and American Indian Studies at the University of California, teaches that reparations can begin by ceding the land back to those who were thrown off of it.

"The origin of being Indigenous,” he says, “is location and ties to the land. The theft of land has immediate consequences for communities and individuals. It means eviction and removal.”

The Land Back movement — which attempts to acquire title to land and return it to communities — has been surging in recent years, with courts increasingly recognizing tribal claims to lands unfairly taken.

The Land Back movement, though, is not about removing people who live there but about recognizing and respecting Indigenous sovereignty, organizers said.

In a statement on his GoFundMe page, Galanin calls for collective action.

“As Indigenous people we are responsible to the land we come from, to care for and protect it — for our grandchildren’s grandchildren, and for all life who would call this land home,” he said.

Galanin has a forthcoming artist's book dedicated to “Never Forget,” that has been in development over the past three years, with photographs by Lance Gerber. A portion of the sales will go toward Galanin's campaign.

‘To be alive’

Galanin works in various media, from sculpture and video to engraving and taxidermy.

He is a carver and educator, making canoes rooted in tradition and passing the knowledge and craft along.

He is also a musician, whose band, Ya-Tseen, released its debut album, “Indian Yard,” on April 30 on the SubPop label. “Close the Distance” is the first single off the album, the latest project from Otis Calvin III, Zak D. Wass and Galanin.

Ya-Tseen is a nod to Galanin’s heritage.

“The Tlingit title, Ya Tseen, means to be alive,” Galanin said. “Using language … it's such a core of our ways of being and thinking. I am always trying to implement or engage in language when I can even though I'm not really the speaker of the language. But I'm always a student.”

He can also be seen in the new documentary film, “Love and Fury,” by Seminole/Creek filmmaker Sterlin Harjo. The film follows Galanin around his hometown as he makes wooden canoe carvings, engraves metal, and in a striking segment, hunts a seal in the harbor and butchers it in his garage.

His works are in more than 20 museum collections.

He has exhibited at the Sydney Biennale, 2020, in Australia; the Whitney Biennial, 2019, New York; and a 2020 solo show at Peter Blum Gallery in New York. In 2018, his work was included in “Unsettled: Art on the New Frontier” at the Palm Springs Art Museum.

Sending a message

During a recent day in early May at the "Never Forget" installation, the white lettering stood in the blazing sun in startling, stark relief against the brown landscape.

A band of jet-black crows had taken up residence on the support scaffolding, cawing and flitting around the art.

For many Native people, the crow is considered a symbol of rebirth and change, with a message for the future — a message that is not lost on Galanin.

“'Never Forget' marks what it is,” he says, on his fundraising page. “It is also a beacon for the future.”

IF YOU GO...

The “Never Forget” art installation, part of Desert X 2021, will remain in place through at least July 6, 2021, at 2901 N. Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, north of the Palm Springs Visitors Center at Tramway Road. 

Other Desert X installations are based at locations throughout Coachella Valley. They can be seen from sunrise to sunset, and admission is free. 

For more information visit DesertX.org.

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CORRECTION: We have removed an incorrect reference from this article to the mountains surrounding the "Never Forget" art installation. Palm Springs is nestled among the Little San Bernardino Mountains, the Santa Rosa Mountains and the San Jacinto Mountains. 

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