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Saber series: Caribou

Performer Laura Levinson

Land collaborator: Dahkóta land

Photos by Madilynn Ballis

Antlers by Elle Thoni

"Turn and look into your fearful heart

Before it kills you too"

"Daily now. I lay stones in the woods for the unmarked graves. Grief and joy dance as twins, and if I am on my knees I could just as well be weeping as making love. Both intimate - hands in the dirt - and reminding me that alignment and release come from dancing in-step, even if it is toward collapse.  .'"

~ Laura Levinson


CW: settler talking about settler colonialism


It was another world, pre-pandemic, when Laura Levinson and I did this first photo experiment for Saber, MN. We sat knee-to-knee from each other at the Heart of the Beast Theatre as I brushed makeup on zeir face from a friend's borrowed palette. Neither of us washed our hands or put on masks before getting into a shared car to meet photographer Madilynn Ballis at the entrance to the Winchell Trail in South Minneapolis along the Mississippi. I am always so captivated by Laura's ability to embody; as soon as zeir boots were in the snow, I could feel the rest of zem becoming more Caribou. It was a magical transformation to witness.

When I committed to the task of building three sets of life-size antlers, my ancestors spoke up and instructed me to begin with Caribou. It's the deer kin that they know best, coming from the Scandinavian peninsula - although they know them by the name of Reindeer. Another name for the same species. Indigenous people from Scandinavia and Turtle Island continue to be the fiercest protectors of this species, which - like the land and the plant life that the Caribou feeds on - has long been targeted by white colonial capitalism.


Caribou herds once roamed in the Northeastern corner of so-called Minnesota, until they became a favored game animal of the lumber camps that sprang up during the mass deforestation of Minnesota. From what I understand, reintroducing the Caribou would be a challenging task if for only one reason: they require old-growth forests for their food source. Caribou, while massive animals, rely on the most miniature forests to survive: the lichen that grows at the base of mature trees. I didn't understand how this could be a sufficient food source for these herd animals until I began spending time in Northern Minnesota, along the proposed route of the new Line 3 pipeline. Tragically, and not-so-ironically, when walking along the Mississippi towards the planned river crossing for the pipeline, I looked out across the forest in winter and still found my eyes washed with green: skirts of lichen worn by every adult tree. I realized, this is where my animal ancestors, the Caribou, used to feed. And this is where my human ancestors, lumberers, also used to feed - with drastically different impacts on the environment and future generations.














To me, the Caribou is a warning - do not repeat the violence of the past. Love the Earth, and she will love you back. Destroy the Earth and... well...

In that spirit, I encourage you to join the Anishinaabe women-led movement to #stopline3 on their treaty territories, sacred wild rice fields, and millions of peoples shared water in the Mississippi and Lake Superior watersheds. To learn more and donate, I encourage you to follow @honortheearth and the @giniwcollective.

This photo shoot was done to promote Saber, MN's original iteration as a stage play commissioned for In the Heart of the Beast Theatre's Coming Home to Wild: New Works on Extinction and Resilience from Julie Boada, Rebekah Crisanta de Ybarra, and Elle Thoni. 

Special thanks to Alison Heimstead and Dillon Sebastien for antler fabrication support!

"Caribou" is an excerpt from the upcoming Saber, MN audio play, featuring an original score by Carlisle Evans Peck - released 12.21.20. Stream on this site for free or contribute $5 or more to download. Proceeds are split between Saber artists and Native-led Line 3 resistance efforts.

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