The Northwest Portage Walking Museum is a community-led proposal for an interpretive learning experience and recreation amenity that invites people to visit the neighborhoods along Irving Park Road and learn about the history of the communities between two of Chicago’s landmark rivers.
Long before Fort Dearborn was established near the confluence of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, Native American communities developed the local river systems as means of transportation along with the extensive trail networks that are still used as modern roadways. Today, Irving Park Road is a busy thoroughfare that not only connects several unique neighborhoods, but also connects residents to river based recreation opportunities on both the North Branch of the Chicago River and the Des Plaines River.
The Northwest Portage Walking Museum will weave an interpretive connection between the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers that celebrates the natural and cultural living histories, as well as, the contributions of First Nations Peoples and highlight the diverse local communities along the route through art, education and recreation.
Chicago Public Art Group (CPAG), American Indian Center (AIC), and Portage Park Neighborhood Association (PPNA) were awarded the Searle Funds at Chicago Community Trust’s (CCT) Great Rivers Grant to plan and develop the Northwest Portage Walking Museum that will connect the North Branch of the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River along Irving Park Road.
Year one of the grant, the organization commissioned Santiago X to work with AIC community and youth through workshops to develop the design for the museum sites at the two rivers’ sites. Through these workshops, Santiago X decided on two indigenous mounds, both following the serpent theme.
The earthwork will be the first noted installation of an effigy mound by an Indigenous Artist in North America, since the founding of the United States. This significant homage to the ancestral practice of mound-building serves to educate the public about the rich cultural history of placemaking, intending to activate the human connection to the river and its importance to the narrative of Chicago’s cultivation as a city. Through the installation and promotion of natural materials, Indigenous plant species, and the progressive preservation of local ecosystems, we seek to frame the sustainable practice of placemaking to create an experiential work of art that ponders the balance of our impactful existence with the earth and elevates our perspective looking towards the future of a sustainable urbanity.
The serpent earthwork has great historical precedence in the regional narrative of ancestral earthwork art, but also locally as there is remaining evidence of a serpent mound in Thatcher Woods. This symbology prevails in highlighting the human connection with the natural environment and our connection to the universe. In Indigenous lifeways through symbology and storytelling, the serpent is a lifeform that is both revered and threatening, taking shape to warn humanity of the continuum of existence and our role to maintain the balance of our world.
Earthwork mounds to date have been primarily erected for aerial legibility. This reclamation of the earthen typology in 2018 is designed to have a perspectival experience for our line of sight. This strategy is to promote our individual connection to the earth and to help us experience first hand the power of the land in efforts to implicate our acceleration of synthetic environments and the effects it has on our shrinking natural environment.
The design harnesses the implied motion of the great serpent to create the illusion of a threshold being stitched together by this life form that can weave in and out of our world, land and water, reality and hyperbole. This movement surrounds the viewer to articulate a world that is bigger than our existence, pushing us to take control of the systems we do have power over in order to ensure our future on this world.
The Indigenous community of Chicagoland has been invited to contribute earth from their respective ancestral and tribal lands to be incorporated into the earthwork. There are over 565 federally recognized tribes in the United States alone, many of which are represented here within the multi-tribal Indigenous community of Chicagoland. A formal ceremony will be incorporated into the unveiling of the mound for the general public to witness this collective reclamation of the mound, as representatives of different tribes pour their earth into the mound itself.
As one of the primary goals of this installation, the activation of the chosen sites connection to the river is a key element this design. The regional Indigenous community has a storied past and thriving contemporary culture centered on a connection to waterways and observe this relationship as sacred. The regional community is invited to partake in a river procession using traditionally constructed canoes (birchbark/dugout) to arrive and depart from the mound site in efforts to weave into the narrative, a continuation of culture as we are inspired by our past and tread towards our uncharted future.
The reintroduction of Indigenous mound building taking place in a contemporary culture void of a collective understanding of the importance of such artistic practice, but with resounding precedent of its presence here in the Midwest calls for the necessity of embedded educational components. Often the only notions of residual Indigenous culture are tropes of ancient cultures, artifacts lacking cultural context and misrepresentation in commercial culture like the presence of racist mascotry. The educational components of this site utilizes digital artifacts to transcend these tropes of the archaeological object often associated with Indigenous mounds. In lieu of the physical artifact, the mound will be embedded with augmented reality hotspots that users can access via their phones or tablets. This digital augmentation will pull up cultural context in the form of websites, 3d models, videos, or interactions that will immerse the encounter beyond the physical and give the user the opportunity to contribute to the story of these earthworks.
The intentions of the materiality are to emphasize the natural materials and Indigenous ecosystem of the site while providing an effective installation that contributes to the narrative of place, from past to future. The project would benefit greatly from the re-use of local materials on site.
Santiago x is a descendant of North American mound builders from the southeastern woodlands and stone carvers from the Marianas Islands. He received a Master of Fine Arts in Studio Art and Technology from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a Master of Architecture from the University of Southern California and Bachelor’s in Environmental Design from the University of Colorado. Santiago x is an enrolled member of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana (Koasati) and Indigenous Chamorro from the Island of Guam U.S.A (Hacha’Maori).