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Shelley Niro’s Borders Offers an Indigenous Perspective on Democracy

a person in a gallery stares at photograph works on a gallery wall from a side angle

Crystal Bridges recently acquired Borders (2008, printed 2022), a series of four images by the artist Shelley Niro. On view in We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy through January 2, this work provides an Indigenous perspective on our nation’s founding principles.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy

Shelley Niro is a Mohawk artist interested in exploring the history of the Haudenosaunee. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy remains the first American democracy and consists of six Indigenous nations—the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Tuscarora, and Mohawk. These nations united to create a peaceful way of decision-making, and their system of governance was one of the models for the US Constitution. Inspired by her people’s democratic principles, Niro created Borders to explore a range of interpersonal, social, and political relationships.



Niro’s Borders series includes four digitally manipulated images, each featuring a pair of outstretched arms. The first work in this series is Boundless. Notice the plane, birds, and DNA strands. Even if the symbols here are unfamiliar to you, the gesture of the hands is universal and humanizing. Two people reach out to one another, their arms suspended against the dark background.

The title of this image is Borders. Here, the barbed wire and fences are paired with opposing, clenched fists. What comes to mind when you look at this image? Are you reminded of any historical or contemporary events?


With hands clasped in agreement, the figures are framed by symbols representing treaties. Above is a Two Row wampum belt. This belt is a contract, symbolizing the 1613 Kaswentha treaty between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch. They agreed to coexist peacefully, using this belt as a document.

Notice the two darker lines on the belt. These lines represent boats on a river path. The boats travel side by side, symbolizing that the two nations will live in peace and friendship without interference. Below, the image of the Grand River, which flows through Haudenosaunee territory, reinforces this sentiment.


In Unity, Niro explores the symbolism of the Turtle Clan of the Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk Nation), of which she is a member. Here, the hands grasp the other’s wrist, showing the strength of their connection.

Notice that when the four images are placed next to each other on the gallery wall, they create the same pattern as the Two Row wampum belt. This visual language recalls a history of treaties and prompts us to think about how we can live peacefully with one another.


See this series in our temporary exhibition We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy, on view at Crystal Bridges through January 2, 2023.


Keep Learning

Learn more about the Haudenosaunee Confederacy:


Learn more about Shelley Niro:


a person in a gallery stares at photograph works on a gallery wall from a side angle
Photo by Stephen Ironside


Written by Marie Hofer, interpretation specialist, Crystal Bridges.