September 24, 2023

Albany Times Union 9-23-23 “Urban trail in Troy unites eco-justice, local Indigenous legacy”

By Katherine Kiessling

a high-angle photograph of people planting clay vessles and plants into a round, raised garden. In the center is an elevated clay vase with ribbons going outward, partitioning the circle in four.

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Along a one-block stretch of Sixth Avenue in northern Troy, medicinal plants, fruit trees and a burgeoning forest canopy intersect amid abandoned buildings and concrete. 

The urban nature walk is the Sanctuary for Independent Media’s new Eco-Art Trail, which highlights the Stockbridge-Munsee legacy, both past and present, in Troy. 

The project, developed under the supervision of the tribe, aims to bring environmental justice, ecological restoration and an understanding of Troy’s Indigenous past through the intersections of art, culture, ancestral history and science, said Branda Miller, Sanctuary co-founder and arts and education coordinator.

The Eco-Art Trail is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant, which focuses on creative placemaking projects. This is the second of such grants awarded to the Sanctuary. Freedom Square, the organization’s outdoor public arts space created with the community in 2013, emerged from the Sanctuary’s first NEA grant.

Unknown to the Sanctuary at the time of its planning and construction, Freedom Square was built close to sacred, Indigenous burial grounds. The realization came while working with Stockbridge-Munsee community member Bonnie Hartley in 2017 on the organization’s youth-driven “Echoes from Lock One” documentary, which explored the environmental impact of the Hudson River and industrialization.

“It was a rich territory that we realized was erased,” Miller said. “The Stockbridge-Munsee community were forcibly relocated from that area, and there’s really very, very little history of their ancestral legacy in Troy.”

The community is descended from the Mohicans and Munsee, a subtribe of the Lenape. The tribes’ land extended across southwest Vermont, the Hudson Valley, northwest Connecticut, portions of Pennsylvania and New Jersey and western Massachusetts, including Stockbridge. Through the Indian Removal Act, the United States government forcibly relocated the Stockbridge-Munsee in the mid-1800s to a reservation in Shawano County, Wis.

Through the Eco-Art Trail, which stretches one block from 101st Street to Glen Avenue, the Sanctuary hopes to help reconnect to this erased history. The Stockbridge-Munsee tribe has worked closely with the Sanctuary since the initial grant application, and several Indigenous artists and activists collaborated on programming surrounding the Eco-Art Trail, which began this summer with mental health workshops, sacred stories and songs and planting a medicine garden.

Three-time Grammy winner and Stockbridge-Munsee member Bill Miller, no relation to Branda Miller, is among the collaborators. While touring, he had passed through upstate New York and Troy, but he did so not knowing he was traveling through his ancestral homeland. This Saturday, he is performing at StoryHarvest, one of the Eco-ArtTrail’s events, and he will select music to be a permanent part of the trail.

“This is the first time coming back,” Bill Miller said. “To actually speak and sing there about the connection between myself, including my tribe, to a place that goes all the way back — it’s going to be a beautiful, spiritual experience.”

Additional upcoming arts events include “An Indigenous Lens on Media Making” discussion with Mohawk filmmaker Kahstoserakwathe Paulette Moore on Oct. 3; a wheelchair procession with German performance artist and disability culture activist Petra Kuppers, in partnership with EMPAC, followed by a performance from Kuppers on Oct. 12; and the docking of Beatriz Cortez’s sculpture “Ilopango, the Colacon that Left,” also in partnership with EMPAC, at Troy’s federal lock and dam Oct. 29. A complete schedule is available online.

The artistic projects are a critical component of the ecological restoration and environmental justice mission of the trail by creating an emotional and spiritual connection to the earth that extends beyond grants and legislation, Bill Miller said.

“I come to be part of the healing process that’s going to happen in that place, to be a motivator and to be a peacekeeper,” he said. “Artists are going to  move the countryside as well.”

The Sanctuary’s NATURE Lab, a community health and urban ecology research program, has overseen the ecological restoration projects of the trail. Among the efforts is a medicine garden focused on plants used in Stockbridge-Munsee traditions including catmint, pye weed, yarrow and bee balm. Azure Keahi, who has worked with the Sanctuary on projects transforming vacant lots into public forests and gardens, oversaw the creation of the medicine garden, and Stockbridge-Munsee member Lucille Burr Grignon will lead a walk and seed saving Oct. 20. 

The Sanctuary is in process of adding signage for self guided walks. Currently, the best time to visit the trail is before or after events hosted by the organization or during its open garden hours on Friday, Branda Miller said.

While a performance from Mohican and Munsee-Lenape composer Brent Michael Davids with Albany Symphony will mark the end of the project June 9, the trail will continue.

“(This project) will only be a stepping stone for moving into the future, for future generations really learning from the ancestral past … as they move to make positive change in this world,” Branda Miller said.

More information

The Sanctuary for Independent Media’s Eco-Art Trail 2023 events
• 10 a.m. Sept. 23: Community Cooking with Corn; the People’s Health Sanctuary, 3319 6th Ave., Troy
• 2 p.m. Sept 23: StoryHarvest with Stockbridge-Munsee Musician Bill Miller; Freedom Square, 35 5th Ave., Troy
• 7 p.m. Oct. 3: Indigenous Lens on Media Making; The Sanctuary for Independent Media 3361 6th Ave., Troy
• 5 p.m. Oct. 12: Wheelchair Procession Along Sanctuary Eco-Art Trail with Petra Kuppers in partnership with EMPAC; The Sanctuary for Independent Media 3361 6th Ave., Troy
• 7 p.m. Oct. 12: Petra Kuppers: Dream Performance & Workshop in partnership with EMPAC; The Sanctuary for Independent Media 3361 6th Ave., Troy
• 3:30 p.m. Oct. 20: Garden Walk, Seed Saving, and Seed Rematriation; Collard City Growers 3337 6th Ave., Troy
• 3 p.m. Oct. 29: Welcoming “Ilopango, the Volcano that Left” in partnership with EMPAC; The Sanctuary for Independent Media 3361 6th Ave., Troy
• 3 p.m. Nov. 18: Mohican Medicine for the Winter Months; The People’s Health Sanctuary 3319 6th Ave., Troy

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