Endangered coastlines and lifeways

A Shinnecock artist's view

A conversation with Courtney M. Leonard and Beth Harris in front of Courtney Leonard's ARTIFICE Ellipse | Log: 18-3, 2016, coiled micaceous clay with glaze, 5 3/8 x 15 x 7 inches (Newark Museum of Art) © Courtney M. Leonard. A Seeing America video.

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Key points

  • Courtney Leonard’s work addresses environmental crises and their relationship to traditional Native American ways of life. She is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation of Long Island, a people who have a close relationship with the sea. Their culture has been threatened by the environmental impact of climate change.
  • ARTIFICE Ellipse | Log: 18-3 is a ceramic sculpture inspired by the forms of man-made artificial reef sculptures. While artificial reef sculptures are intended to promote marine life and control coastal erosion, they are also part of a larger environmental problem. Many artificial reefs are made of concrete, which is largely composed of sand taken from coastal areas, leaving them vulnerable to rising sea levels and erosion.

Go Deeper

See this sculpture at the Newark Museum

Interview with Courtney Leonard

Courtney Leonard’s website

Courtney Leonard reflects on her people’s thoughts when a 60-foot whale washed up on Shinnecock (South Hampton) in April 2005

Read about environmental activism by members of the Shinnecock nation

Read about the world’s sand shortage in Smithsonian Magazine

Read how residents of the Shinnecock Reservation are fighting sea-level rise at The Gothamist

More to think about

In the video, Courtney Leonard asks, “Can a culture sustain itself when it no longer has access to the environment that fashioned its culture?” What do you think she means by this? Think about the ways you identify yourself culturally. What environmental factors might have contributed to the practices and traditions that are part of that identity?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.