Many indigenous artists are creating public artworks that invite communities to engage, rather than keeping them at a distance
Pictured above: Artist Jeffrey Gibson’s Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens [Photo: Scott Lynch/courtesy the Artist; Socrates Sculpture Park; Sikkema Jenkins, New York; Kavi Gupta, Chicago; and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles]
The last year has highlighted America’s deep divides over identity and its struggles with how to memorialize the past. In the midst of these very public debates, indigenous artists are taking a different tack, creating art that encourages reflection and interaction as a way to start conversations and bridge the divides.
A prime example of this is Okciyapi, the upcoming installation by artist Angela Two Stars, which will be revealed to the public on October 9 at the Walker Art Museum’s Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
Okciyapi is the first sculpture by an indigenous artist commissioned by the Walker for the sculpture garden, and it’s one of many recent public artworks by contemporary indigenous artists that envision a more inclusive American identity. These pieces offer an antidote to traditional monuments, which for centuries mythologized men and were designed to keep viewers at a distance.
Okciyapi is Dakota for “help each other,” and the sculpture is an homage to the Dakota people and their endangered but resilient language, and to all those who are working to ensure the language not only survives but thrives. Two Stars posits that there are fewer than 60 fluent Dakota speakers from her tribe, many of whom are elderly.
Situated near the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, the installation will feature concentric circles of concrete benches, evocative of ripples from a water drop, and enamel panels engraved with Dakota words and phrases such as woksapé (wisdom), wóohoda (respect), and wóohitika (bravery). At the center, there’s a reflective water vessel.
Two Stars—an enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Dakota Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota—designed Okciyapi to draw visitors in as they read, reflect, and listen to audio of tribal elders telling stories in what the artist emphasizes is a very oral language.
“I like to create artwork that has an element of audience participation,” Two Stars says. “I want to make my art accessible to everybody, to both native and non-native audiences.”
In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, communities ramped up their efforts to remove a slew of monuments and statues across the country that celebrated racist and oppressive individuals—from Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, to Christopher Columbus at the Minnesota State Capitol. There’s even a Wikipedia page that lists all the monuments that have been removed in the time period since.
“It’s a clearly acknowledged idea that monuments about one person are still claiming to be universal, but privileging one group,” says Henriette Huldisch, chief curator of the Walker. “Angela’s piece is really the opposite.”
While Okciyapi is Two Stars’s largest public art commission to date, she has long been raising awareness about the Dakota through her art. In 2019, she collaborated on a public art project along the shores of Bde Maka Ska, the largest lake in Minneapolis. The project highlighted the restoration of the original Dakota name from Lake Calhoun, which was named for John Calhoun, a former vice president of the U.S. and a strong defender of slavery. Two Stars is also the director of All My Relations, a Minneapolis gallery presenting the work of American Indian contemporary fine artists.
Two Stars is one of many contemporary Native American artists whose work honors a specific culture while also prioritizing the cooperative, inviting visitors in to join and move forward together.
“To me it’s not surprising that native artists are inviting people in,” says Kathleen Ash-Milby, curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum and a member of the Navajo Nation. While this isn’t necessarily unique to Native American artists, she says native cultures prioritize community and the individual’s responsibility to the collective.
In addition to Two Stars, Ash-Milby points to contemporary artists such as Marie Watt (of the Seneca Nation of Indians), Cannupa Hanska Luger (of the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation), Jeffrey Gibson (of the Mississippi Band Choctaw/Cherokee), Nadia Myre (of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation), and Alan Michelson (of the Six Nations of the Grand River).
Michelson’s 2018 public artwork Mantle is a spiral stonework in Richmond, Virginia’s Capitol Square that invites visitors “to move within the symbolic circle of American Indian culture.”
From 2005 to 2013, meanwhile, Myre invited people to pick up needle and thread and sew their physical, emotional, and spiritual scars into canvas for The Scar Project. More than 1,400 people participated.
Then there’s Gibson, who created the piece Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House for the 2020 Monument Now exhibition at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens. Gibson’s massive 44-square-foot artwork was inspired by the Serpent Mound of Pre-Columbian Mississippian culture, from which Gibson’s band of Mississippi Choctaw Indians descended.
The ziggurat structure buzzes with the neon colors of wheat-pasted posters with statements like “POWER FULL BECAUSE WE ARE DIFFERENT” and “THE FUTURE IS PRESENT.” Gibson encouraged the community to climb, dance, or go within the sculpture, where more art resided.
With its backdrop of the East River and the Manhattan skyline, Malvika Jolly of The Brooklyn Rail said it looked like “the invention of a new America.”
Back at the Walker, against the backdrop of the Minneapolis skyline, Okciyapi invites the community to learn about the Dakota and the origins of Minnesota itself. (Two Stars points to how Minnesota is derived from the Dakota phrase “Mni Sota Makoce,” meaning “Land Where the Waters Reflect the Clouds.”) The artwork also invites viewers to process the trauma of the past: the repercussions of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 are still widely felt, as is the legacy of the state’s 16 American Indian boarding schools.
Okciyapi will be installed on the site where artist Ben Durant’s Scaffold stood briefly in 2017 before it was removed after a community outcry. Durant’s piece reconstructed seven different gallows from U.S. history including those used for the 1862 hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota—an execution ordered under President Abraham Lincoln in the aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War. It is the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
“It wasn’t even about Scaffold. We didn’t want the artist to feel burdened by that history and those missteps,” says Kate Beane, who is on the Indigenous Public Art Commission that formed in the aftermath of Scaffold and worked with the Walker to commission a new work. “At the same time, we knew we needed to choose an artist brave enough to create in that space knowing what happened there.”
Beane, who is also director of Native American Initiatives for the Minnesota Historical Society and a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe in South Dakota, says they chose Two Stars because of how her artwork and process engage communities. “It was not about her,” Beane says. “She really came in without ego.”
Two Stars has frequently spoken about how the inspiration for Okciyapi was her grandfather Orsen Bernard, who spent the last 15 years of his life dedicated to the Dakota language. In her lifetime, she recalls seeing the language transforming from a source of pain for the elder generations, who were abused for speaking it in boarding and residential schools, to a source of joy for youth, including for her own young children. Now, she says she sees non-natives wanting to learn one of the original languages of Minnesota, too: “I’m inviting people into what I call my language journey.”