confluence fishclean
Image: Andrew Brahe

Salmon fillets pile up on Lin’s basalt fish-cleaning table at Cape Disappointment State Park, which is etched with the Chinook creation myth.

A few days before the Cape Disappointment ribbon-cutting ceremony, Lin emerged from a back room in the underground exhibition hall at the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery and assumed a wide-legged stance beneath a room-sized, suspended grid of aluminum tubing crumpled to represent the contour of a sea floor. The morning press preview of Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes, Lin’s first major art exhibit in eight years, had drawn a dozen or so journalists who gathered around her expectantly.

“This is no different from what a landscape painter of the 18th or 19th century would do; we just get to see nature with different tools,” Lin explained, leading the press entourage through galleries filled with more scale models of major geographic forms—ocean floors, mountain ranges, rivers—rendered in materials such as particleboard and sterling silver, and the pièce de résistance: a room-sized mountain formed of hundreds of sustainably harvested hemlock two-by-fours stood on end. Lin’s interpretive commentary would be duly transcribed in vaguely laudatory features in major art and architectural magazines. (Her sculptures “allude to some of the world’s most endangered ecologies, though you might not know it from the pristine works, surfaced in birch veneer,” wrote David Sokol for Architectural Record.)

Lin’s celebrity status in the art world is more or less fixed, but the polish wore thin for a moment several months later in October, after Philip Kennicott, culture critic for the Washington Post, attended a similar lecture by Lin at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The following Sunday he published an editorial titled, “Why Has Maya Lin Retreated from the Battlefield of Ideas?” in which he accused her of having morphed from a “local hero” to an “apolitical and irrelevant environmental artist” who “makes bumps in the earth and little Zenlike paths in public gardens.”?He condemned her as arrogant, moreover, for refusing to discuss either her own past as a monument maker or the current state of American memorial art.

As Lin has attempted to throw off her “monument maker” typecast, she has indeed worked diligently to remake her image—albeit in terms that make a fetish of ambiguity. Her self-characterization as an artist who “exists on the boundaries” finds support in her work: Since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, she has designed contemplative buildings, cerebral sculptural installations, even a 1,600-foot-long, undulating berm in a cow pasture in Sweden. Yet her insistence on not being pinned down seems to have contributed to a situation in which detractors and fans alike interpret her work in the blandest possible terms.

Beneath all the rhetoric, however, her art tells its own obstinately compelling—and politically relevant—story. Even Kennicott should be impressed that 25 years after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lin has embarked on a project even more ambitious than memorializing the tragic consequences of an unpopular war abroad—that is, memorializing the devastating cultural and environmental impact of a celebrated conquest at home.

The almost incomprehensible complexity of the Confluence Project can be partially conveyed by Lin’s process of redesigning a portion of 284-acre Sacajawea State Park. Her makeover of this triangle of grass and picnic tables, which sits under a canopy of grand old sycamores at the Columbia-Snake confluence five miles southeast of Pasco, Wash., involved everything from disinterring ancient languages to assessing the mechanics of weedwhackers.

An early meeting to generate input for the project was held on a cloudy morning in October 2005 in the conference room of the Clover Island Inn, a graying edifice of drab late-’70s modernism a couple miles from the park. Lin, Jacobsen, Minthorn, several other elders of the Yakama and Umatilla tribes, landscape architect Johnpaul Jones and a few buttoned-up employees of the Army Corps of Engineers (which owns a portion of the park) took seats around a broad square of folding tables, and Minthorn rose to read a prepared statement.

“I don’t think I’ve ever really spoken about the event of Lewis and Clark, and the Treaty of 1855, and the impact that those events had on the tribes of this particular region, what we call the Sahaptian tribes: Warm Springs, Yakama, Nez Perce and Umatilla,” he began. Then Minthorn, a longtime tribal activist and a retired land-use planner, sketched the tragic arc of his people. After Lewis and Clark passed through the tribes’ homelands, the arid steppe land of present-day southeastern Washington, traders, missionaries and homesteaders arrived, he explained. Violence broke out in the 1840s, quelled by the Walla Walla treaty in 1855; the government abrogated the rights promised there, and the tribes were gradually decimated and impoverished. It was “a long fall in a very short time,” Minthorn observed, referring to the 150-year decline of his 10,000-year-old culture, but his people remained “determined to recover and rebuild their tribal nations.”

Lin’s makeover of Sacajawea State Park involved everything from disinterring ancient languages to assessing the mechanics of weedwhackers.

More speeches ensued, and then Lin spoke up: “I don’t think you can return back in time,” she ventured. What she hoped to do was to restore some of the native vegetation, to give visitors a sense of the tribes whose homelands overlapped the park and to convey that the river confluence had served as a transportation hub and trading ground. The artwork had no form yet, and she was primarily here to learn: How did the tribal leaders feel, for example, about her idea of incorporating written words from native languages into the park, even though the languages had existed primarily in spoken form?