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The Chippewa River is a source of inspiration for artists of all kinds.

Giving thanks to the river

A new collaborative project invites CMU, community to reflect on the Chippewa River

Contact: Ari Harris

​The Chippewa River runs more than 90 miles through Michigan's Lower Peninsula. Along the way, it connects people, communities, culture and history and inspires artists of all kinds.

Gifts for the River, a new collaborative art project developed by Denison Visiting Scholar Ty Defoe and supported by the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, invites Central Michigan University students, faculty and staff to contribute their creative and scholarly work to celebrate and honor the river that flows through Mount Pleasant.


Ty Defoe, right, works with students and faculty during a workshop at CMU.

Connecting people, cultures and communities

Defoe is a member of the Ojibwe and Oneida Nations and was intentional about bringing the CMU community together with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe throughout the project.

He met with the Tribal Council, Grandmother Singers and the CMU North American Indigenous Student Organization and spoke to a number of CMU classes and registered student organizations.

"Art can be a tool for social change and for healing," Defoe said. "The environment brings us together. It is a metaphor for a way we can live our lives, caring for each other and for the future."

He worked with Ari Berk, professor of folklore and myth in CMU's English language and literature department, and a small core team led by Mount Pleasant artist Denise Fanning to develop the concept for Gifts for the River.

"When we walk by the river, we are always walking in the footsteps of thousands of others," Berk said. "This project invites people to reflect on those connections and asks them what they want to contribute: a song, a poem, a thought, an action or a commitment."


Ari Berk contributed this photo of the river. He often brings his writing classes to the river to inspire their storytelling.

The group hosted a series of conversations and workshops and developed a blog to encourage sharing and reflection.

Everyone is welcome to post photos, contribute creative work or research, or simply share favorite memories of time spent on the river, Berk said.

A gift of words

Student organization Word Hammer hosted an open mic night as a gift for the river. Students and community members read famous poems or performed original work. It was deeply personal for Brandii-Mikayla Washington, president of Word Hammer. She performed at the event.

Washington, a sociology: social and criminal justice major from Detroit, said the idea of giving back to nature felt novel — and necessary. People often visit the river to go tubing or fishing, she said, but rarely consider their own impact on the river's health.


Student Brandii Washington participated in an open mic night as a gift for the river.

She said that because she spends much of her time thinking about people and their behavior, Gifts for the River challenged her to reflect instead on nature.

"Nature is an open door," she said. "It is full of diversity and welcomes everyone. When you give a poem to the Earth, there's no one to tell you it's wrong or not good enough."

A gift of movement

Broadcast and cinematic arts student Alan Shi wears a yellow leather medicine bag around his neck. Inside the pouch is a small eagle carved from rock — a gift from the Gifts for the River's core planning team.

"My Chinese name means stone eagle. Over the course of this project, I've been encouraged to reflect on my name, and I've learned more about how different cultures interpret the eagle as a visionary. Eagles can fly above the clouds and see the whole world but also have sharp eyes that let them focus intensely," Shi said.


Student Alan Shi captured images of Defoe in eagle dress performing near the river.

Shi, a junior from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, has wanted to make films since he was 13 years old. His gift for the river is a duo of short films in which the river plays a central character, sometimes gentle and embracing, and sometimes fierce and overpowering.

"It was a chance to connect with nature and produce something that was pure art inspired by the river," Shi said.

Shi worked with Heather Trommer-Beardslee, director of the University Theatre Dance Company, and her students to capture spontaneous reactions to the river. Using his camera like a dancer, Shi moved alongside the student performers, reacting to their movement. At one point, he found himself wading into the water to get closer to the dancers.

"It was liberating to get out there and wing it. It was the most collaborative experience I've ever had," Shi said. "I hope my video will show others what we can create when we are inspired by nature."

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