When European settlers came to North America, they adopted Native American place names for their cities, even as they treated natives brutally.
"These fanatics named their colonies after the Indians after they killed the Indians," says artist Peter Edlund. "The people aren't there anymore, but the names are. It makes you angry, but most people don't care."
Edlund cares and he wants his art to be a reminder of those lost people. His exhibit at Real Art Ways in Hartford, "Names on the Land," is a series of landscape paintings created to point out how many of America's places got their names.
His oil on canvas "The Battle for Wisconsin" shows black silhouettes of animals — a swan, her hatchling, a raccoon, an eagle — perched majestically around a body of water, the sun setting in the background, surrounded by trees and tall grasses.
But the grass isn't grass. It's Menominee, the Wild Rice People, the Ojibwe word for the tribe that once dominated that region. The eagle isn't an eagle, it's a waumandee, the name of a town in that state. The water isn't water, it's neenah, the Winnebago word for water, which was given to another Wisconsin town.
A painting of Florida from the same "Battle" series shows an alligator, actually a halpata, a Seminole word for gator. The water is okeechobee, Seminole for "big water," and now a town in Florida.
"I let the colonizers know the words related to the people and the languages that have been exterminated," Edlund says. "There are ghosts of people there."
A painting of Pennsylvania is included in the "Battle" series. Edlund is working on two more in that series, Michigan and Ohio. There's another subtextual reason Edlund chose those states and named the series "Battle": All five were considered battleground states during the 2016 election and all have political histories that devalue the land and the people.
This adds another layer to the meaning behind the seemingly tranquil works. Animals aren't just congregating. The menacing ones are circling the helpless ones. The flowing river is polluted. The animals live in hazardous conditions because the land is threatened by over-industrialization.
The hanging items in the Florida painting point to that state's history of Jim Crow laws and lynchings. The hatchling in the Wisconsin work, menaced by the fox, eagle and snake, symbolizes the damage done to youths when politicians cut education funding. The oil-slicky streaks in the water in the Pennsylvania painting point to hundreds of years of deforestation, coal mining, oil drilling, natural gas fields and fracking.
Edlund, however, doesn't focus just on menace. His smaller works in the show each zero in on a piece of flora or fauna, with the original Native American names attached. No political subtext, just beauty: a sisquoc, the Chumash word for quail; a wasatch, the Shoshoni word for blue heron; tuolomne, the Miwok word for "squirrel place."
Other paintings in Edlund's "Forgotten New York" series are blue-toned landscapes — some real, some imagined — of places in his adopted state. The artist grew up in Canton and West Hartford and now lives in Brooklyn and plans to retire to rural upstate New York.