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Spotlight: Alan Campo’s “Anishinaabek” Mural

Native Americans and their Relationship to the Grand River

In honor of Native American Day, which celebrates the cultures and contributions of Native American tribes, we’re showcasing Alan Compo’s mural on the Grand River, “Anishinaabek.” 

Visit the mural, painted on the tunnel and retaining walls of the Pearl St. bridge, on the west side of the Grand River.


Created and installed in 2018, Alan shared in his artist statement:

Being a part of The First people of this area will always be a huge part of my art, as well as who I am. “Anishinaabek” is a piece that has been stuck in my head for many years, waiting for the perfect place to make itself known. This is not only my story, but a part of everyone in this areas story.

Inspired by the many I grew up with and how I remember them is how I create. Mother Earth, her waters, and everything we are Blessed with is where all our stories begin.  Everything is connected within these Circles. We are all apart of this beautiful world, and the many lessons within.

Creating my piece “Anishinaabek” was a very humbling experience. I cannot speak before my elders or for others. This is my version of stories and how I remember. I am Blessed to be but just a tiny part of such a Great People, humans. Painting, and thinking about all that has gone on along the shores and within this mighty Grand River is surreal. To think about what continues, and what has been forgotten is a huge undertaking to respectfully paint. My hope for this piece is that it has the viewer feeling the same incredible awe that I do as I live among such stories and do my best to allow them to flow in a good way.

This mural is only one story of a plum orchard which grew along the River long ago. A natural Native garden for the Anishinaabek, where the kwek (women) would go.  To think about the beauty and the scenes of life that played out here is incredible. Stories within stories that continue to move into today. I hope that this paint I’ve put on these walls will help bring the viewer into that place of wonder and beauty that I try to see and feel myself. Miigwetch for allowing me to create in such a beautiful spot.

Throughout this entire mural I included the tiny round plums that were said to have grown along the Grand River. There were circles of trees of yellow, red and purple plums. My plum trees are a bit abstract, but I wanted them to stand out, and for people to see them. On the river side of the tunnel I did my best to continue the water line as if the river could be seen thru the walls. The women painted in blues behind the floral pattern, on the bottom represent the kwek, women of the past, who have shaped us today. The dancers in color in the front of the bottom floral, represent the ability to be ever present and moving forward with our traditions, and culture. I did my best to represent as many clans as possible throughout. Family clans such as the Crane, Bear, Turtle, Sturgeon, Martin, Deer, and Loon. I myself am Turtle clan which is part of the Fish clan. We use the clan system to help determine were someone might come from and consider others in your clan family.  Many stories and amazing history come from these teachings. Most of the Anishinaabek life is learned through being and listening to the stories while being in the moments.  

Being apart of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians I feel a deep connection to the Grand River. It was how our people lived and traveled. Much respect was and is paid to how amazing it truly is. I had to paint the man moving down the Grand in his birch bark canoe. I could think about all the canoes that have traveled along this River, and all the meeting spots that were on these banks. Meeting spots for all Three Fires Nations, and others as well. Marriage ceremonies, funerals, or visiting friends and those that had passed made this River a busy place. Many Natives would bury their loved ones along the banks for the ease of being able to come pay respects later, and to include them in the many ceremonies and gatherings of the many tribes that took place here. Grand Rapids was a huge meeting place for the people of the Three Fires to meet. It was the perfect place to come in from Lake Michigan and all directions. It was a central spot.  

Within this mural I tried to place many stories. I painted the muskrat, and hints of our creation story. How this animal, so thought of as being so lowly and weak, was the one who went down to the bottom of the waters and fetched a tiny morsel of land to help recreate the land on top of the turtle. In doing so he gave his life. I think about the many lessons learned in many of these stories and how beautiful and connected they are. I see the many flood stories in all the other Nations around the world and know that we are all connected to Mother Earth. I like to show the many gifts of Mother Earth, and the ways that I see the Anishinaabek use, such as sweet grass, birch bark, and the quills of the porcupine. I remember and see the baskets in my mothers’ cabinets that were used and traded by my Great Grand Mother. Using all-natural elements, she would weave incredible designs taught to her by her mother, and family. Traditions continue, and develop, and its just my way of using art to keep that line of tradition going. I come from artists.

There are so many stories within this mural. I like to hint at many of the Nanaboozhoo stories, who was a bit of a trickster, but would always seem to somehow learn or create something in life. I love the stories of the Thunder Bird and Water panther, and how many stories that may seem to end in tragic ways, are learning experiences. I love to depict Mother Earth, many times I will do so with a turtle, and strawberries. The strawberry is always that first little flower and fruit we see in the spring. Like the plum garden, many Native gardens grew naturally with the Earth. Everything was only used when needed and always gathered with respect for what was being taken. The plants, the animals, all are living in this world too, and we depend on them for so much.

Music plays a huge part in my work. I love to incorporate the drum, singing, and dancing in everything I can. To me, it helps to tell the story, but also to pay respect to all that is given to us from the Earth. We only have one home, one Earth, and it provides us with everything that we need to live. We are all so Blessed and I don’t want to forget that. I want to remember to see the beauty around us; In the River, in the plants, walking, flying, swimming among us, and say Miigwetch KithciiManitoo for such life.

We must be caretakers of this beauty. We must respect the gifts we are given. Everything has a story and lessen to give us. We must see it, look for it, remember it, and learn from it.