Including North, Central and South America, it is estimated that from 1492 to 1600, between 60 -100 million Native Americans died due to the Old and New World colliding. Regarded by some as the largest genocide in human history, most of the deaths came from disease and from the conscious slaughter of native populations by Europeans.
Lacking immunity of any kind, in most instances, the diseases that Europeans brought with them traveled ahead of their conquest, wiping out entire Native American civilizations before they arrived. If the diseases did not kill them, their newly arrived Old World cousins certainly did; the European saw the Native American as a nuisance or pest, in the way of their rapid colonization of the New World. They quickly exterminated millions in the most horrific manner possible, with some records accounting of entire villages being slaughtered, cut to pieces and fed to the livestock.
There is no question that the Native American’s experience of ‘colonization’ was a living nightmare, but suffering and death did not spare the settlers from the Old World. Countless lives were lost as the Old World migrated into the New World. After deadly ocean voyages lasting months, the settlers were met in the New World with famine, war, disease and extreme poverty. Not to mention that some of these immigrants had no choice, as they were either persecuted out of their countries or taken as slaves to the New World.
For me, this history creates an internal conflict that is hard to ignore. Though I am of European descent (Spanish), with my ancestry going back to Fransisco de Orellana, one of the original Spanish conquistadors, another part of me is Native Central American (Maya), which was practically wiped out during colonization. Because of this, I have to accept both viewpoints of our American history equally. The more I looked at the Allegheny and Monogahela rivers coming together in Pittsburgh to form the Ohio river, the more I drew parallels between those waters and myself. I, and others like me, are the children of two genetic and cultural rivers that propelled towards each other for thousands of years. The confluence of these two rivers can be seen as the unavoidable collision of the Old World with the New World; two populations, starting from a shared ancestry, divided by time and geography and eventually becoming whole once again. Just like the waters of the three rivers of Pittsburgh, there was extreme violence when these populations first mixed, but as the waters calmed down stream of the Ohio, their destiny became forever linked.
Thus, Confluence is a type of memorial to the millions of lives that perished during these brutal centuries, allowing us now to celebrate our union and the three rivers area of Pittsburgh. My site-specific installation under the Portal Bridge at Point State Park consists of 60 wooden beds, configured on each side of the bridge in three rows as they would in a military field hospital (30 beds on each side of the bridge). These beds are used as a symbol for humanity, a stage for our birth, rest and death. Instead of mattresses, each bed has locally grown grass placed on top, a reference to the natural world that has also been lost in the area. At the head of each bed is a folded fur blanket, pointing to the atrocities committed against the Native American, but also the exploration and trade that first brought the European to the area. Finally, on some of the beds is a seated wooden canine, seen by some cultures both from the Old World and the New World as sacred, helping carry the soul over turbulent waters to the land of the dead. The dogs in this installation patiently await their human companions, watching for them from both this world and the next.
Site specific installation at the Portal Bridge in Point State Park, Pittsburgh, PA