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Companion Species (What’s Going On), 2017
Four-color woodcut on Somerset satin white. Sheet and image: 17 ½ x 18 ½ inches. Edition of 14 + proofs. Printed by TMP Frank Janzen. Published by Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, Pendleton, OR.
Edition number lower left, signed in pencil verso lower right, titled verso center, printed number verso lower right, CSP chop embossed lower left, printer’s chop embossed lower right
Edition 8/14: Last available edition. Price is inclusive of framing.
Marie Watt on the series Calling Back, Calling Forward:
I probably heard Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” for the first time when I was around five years old, listening to AM radio while being driven through the suburbs of Seattle in my parents’ kelly-green Datsun station wagon. This would have been 1972 or ’73. I’d like to give my five-year-old self credit for liking the groove of the music, but that would be generous.
I don’t know that the song meant anything to me at the time, but looking back, it should have. I grew up in an interracial family: My mom, a member of the Seneca Nation, was raised on the Cattaraugus Reservation in western New York.
My father is white, of German-Scottish descent; he was raised on homesteaded land in Wyoming and comes from a family of ranchers and itinerant educators. They met in Seattle, where I was born. Because membership in our tribe is traced matrilineally, I am a citizen of the Seneca Nation like my mom. We also call ourselves the Haudenousaunee, or “people of the longhouse.” Some people may be more familiar with the name the French gave us: the Iroquois Confederacy.
The lyrics to “What’s Going On” were originally written by Obie Benson, who happened to be on a bus that passed by People’s Park in Berkeley on a day in 1969 when three thousand people had gathered there to protest the Vietnam War. Benson’s question was framed not only by the protest that was taking place outside the window of the bus, but also by the civil rights movement, the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Alcatraz, which began in 1969 and would last until 1971. The Alcatraz occupation was an effort to generate awareness of the ingrained poverty, inadequate infrastructure, pervasive unemployment, frail cultural fabric, and rampant alcoholism that plagued Native reservations as a result of the failure of federal and state governments to follow through on their treaty obligations with Indigenous nations.
Almost five decades later, I am streaming this song and listening to it with deep attention. In it I hear what I interpret as an intersection between Marvin Gaye’s knowledge and traditional Haudenosaunee/Indigenous knowledge about our relatedness. Gaye opens the song by calling out, “Mother, mother,” and addresses his listeners as if they were his family: “Brother, brother… Sister, sister … Father, father.” From a Haudenosaunee and Indigenous perspective, this call would extend to include “Grandmother, grandmother … Grandfather, grandfather … Auntie, auntie … Uncle, uncle.” It would also acknowledge animal relations and other elements of the natural world (plants, water, earth, sky). In the Haudenosaunee creation story, Sky Woman falls (or is pushed) from a hole in Sky World, and as she falls, a motley crew of animals come to her aid, each creature assisting according to its unique talents: turtle offers his shell as land, muskrat gets mud from the bottom of the sea to make soil for things to grow in, and so on. To acknowledge how animals helped Sky Woman settle on what we now call Turtle Island, the Haudenosaunee consider them our First Teachers. Our clans are also named after animals to recognize this foundational relationship.
As in the early seventies, significant social and political unrest permeates the current moment. The Flint water crisis. The Standing Rock protests and the Water Protectors. The Black Lives Matter movement. The fight for climate justice. The COVID-19 pandemic. All of these matters and more are calling us to understand our relatedness. In response to these events, and in the context of both the Haudenosaunee creation story and Marvin Gaye’s song, I’ve been wondering what the world would look like if we considered ourselves companion species rather than disconnected adversaries. Can saying a word, like mother, change our relationship to a concept? Can certain words prompt us to consider our relatedness or interconnectedness, not just in the present moment, but backward and forward in time? How does saying such words conjure up relations known and unknown, relations past and relations future?
When a word is doubled, I call it “twinning language,” which suggests an echo, a calling back and a calling forward. In “What’s Going On,” Gaye sings each name not once, but twice: Mother, mother. Brother, brother. He is calling out, and it’s an emphatic call. A yearning call. An urgent call. A long-distance call through space and time, hurling the words out further and further in an attempt to link us with our ancestors and with future generations, begging us to act.