The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary was a barren plot of land last week, its frozen grounds speckled with winter’s first snow, the St. Paul horizon dotted by telephone wires, the looming concrete of the Lafayette Bridge, rush-hour traffic and a hovering helicopter.
At the very same time, a first-time visitor and user of the new “Dakota Spirit Walk” app was treated to a more natural, colorful and magical tour of the preserve — via cellphone. Traipsing the snowy path with phone and earbuds, I hiked past the relatively inert park board signs describing Dakota and Minnesota history and onto the sanctuary path, where I was promptly met (on my phone) by a flurry of fluttering butterflies, birds, rabbits, children, squirrels, horses, and an animated figure, Unci Makha (Grandmother Earth), who offered greetings.
“Han, I am Unci Makha, grandmother earth. Pidamayaye, thank you for visiting us. I ask that you be humble to plant and animal relatives around you. Be mindful of your actions on this journey for you are on sacred ground. If harm is done, you must repair it, as is being done with the land restoration here.”
Then the animals formed a semi-circle and ascended into the sky to frame the floating words “We are all related,” and a few yards down from there it was on to Kaposia village and a flying water serpent hovering amidst the stars, tipis, and flying buffalo. And so the “Dakota Spirit Walk” journey begins — all thanks to digital artist Marlena Myles.
“There’s a lot of Dakota revitalization happening [at the Preserve] but also like there’s been partnerships with the city itself to restore that natural area, to restore native prairie,” said Myles by phone from her St. Paul studio. “I just want to center my art around what people are currently doing and acknowledge Dakota people as well as the land, and [express] that we have that power to fix things that happened in the past. You know, like people always say, we can’t change the past but we can make things better in the present and in the future.”
One way is the Dakota Spirit Walk, which reimagines an indigenous Minnesota that doesn’t usually show up in history books or museums. “When I first came to St. Paul, that was a place that I hung out a lot,” Myles says of the preserve. “Just to waste time, before I could really figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and when I was there, I used to play my flute a lot. That was what I did before I took up art full time.
“My sister one day — I was playing my flute; Mozart, probably — was shaking this water bottle and the water was hitting the ground and as it’s evaporating it looks like a lot of little footprints, as if the spirit of kids were dancing to the flute. And that showed to me that the spirits are still there, and that that is an impactive place. It’s the site of Dakota villages as well as the burial grounds, so I wanted to create an artwork and art installation that introduces people to those spirits’ experience and the different things we can learn from the Grandmother Earth or the Grandmother Stone, the Water Spirit, and Thunder Being. I think when people go there, they’ll see that the spirits and all that is still there.
“I think it brings meaning to that site because Dakota people, we didn’t have a written language, but we stored our histories, and our cultural meanings, even our scientific thought in our relationship to plants. So when they gave a plant or certain type of name, we’re describing our relationship to that plant, we’re not naming it after ourselves, like the scientists do when they discover a new plant or new species. Whereas Dakota people, we’re storing our histories in the names of plants and animals and such things.”
All of which comes to life via the Dakota Spirit Walk, an augmented reality public art installation developed by Myles, Revolo AR, and Pixel Farm Studios that “uses geolocation, audio and 3D animation to guide users through a series of encounters overlaid upon the sight of the historic village of Kaposia, which is now the landscape of St. Paul’s 27-acre Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary near the Mississippi River. The encounters feature augmented-reality Dakota spirits — Grandmother Earth, thunder beings, water serpents, and Grandfather Stone — who share history, mischief, warnings, and wisdom.”
Myles: “My favorite part is thunder being, of course, just because I love thunderstorms and it talks about the star knowledge and our connection and how it guides us, and also passes on how we can connect to the land that’s the burial mounds that are currently there. I also like Grandfather Stone, because he’s such an ancient being. He is there in those cliffs, but he teaches us to pay attention to children and what we can learn from them because they’ve just entered this world as new spirits and they have that close connection to spirit world. Those are a couple of features of it I enjoy, but every stop is fun in its own way.”
’Tis the season for artist of the year polls, and it’s difficult to think of a more relevant, busier, or more in-demand artist than Myles was in 2021. The Minneapolis-born digital artist was responsible for children’s books and coloring books; murals; solo art shows; a popular downloadable Twin Cities Dakota map; the branding of Owamni restaurant; several public art installations and much more.
“I’m self-taught. I grew up in Minneapolis, at Little Earth,” said Myles. “I went to a native magnet school and I got a computer at a young age, and I was [inspired] to create digital art before it was like, socially acceptable. When I became an adult, I realized there wasn’t much native presence outside of Little Earth or the magnet school that I went to. In the Twin Cities, there’s nothing that showed that this was Dakota homelands, so I created a couple of pieces.
“Learning more about Dakota culture as an adult, I wanted to create work that has those stories in it and shares those realizations that I was learning. You don’t think about what your purpose will be as a kid, but I think everybody hopefully learns at some point that they want to give back to the next generation and fix things they didn’t have when they were kids. I didn’t see any native presence in the Twin Cities; we didn’t even have authentic coloring books or anything like that, so I just created them, free resources, downloadable on my website.
“I think one of my biggest pet peeves in the world is ignorance. And we’re all ignorant of something, so I like to share education and knowledge and learn from other people the same way, because I just can’t stand… I think all the problems in this world are caused by ignorance, and not everyone has access to education, so that’s part of what my art is about.
“People don’t really know how much complexity is stored in these areas, with spiritual connections. As a native person, I don’t know how you can live without really having a deep relationship to the land. I mean, are you just a ghost floating above the earth and just consuming, or something, or do you want to have deep roots that are gaining resources from the land that’s here?
“I like to present the truth in a broad, open-minded way, so that people, when they get to that next level of learning, about the crimes that happened, they realize there’s a balance, too; there’s also good parts and good relationships as well. Because I feel like sometimes if we learned just negative things, you’re like, ‘I don’t want to learn about the Dakota cultures. It’s just gonna be negative.’
“But I don’t necessarily create art to express my feelings. I grew up actually playing the flute and studying classical compositions. I feel like music is something I can personally express a feeling with, but art is something that I know I want to put that information out with. Like, when I was a kid, they took our little native class to Fort Snelling. And they taught it to us as if it’s like pioneer days, like you see people doing blacksmithing and you see an old classroom. Literally no one told this class of 99 percent native kids that, ‘It’s a concentration camp for your people. This is where they hung two people. This is where you were exiled from the state.’ That’s kind of insane to me that as a kid that they would treat it as if it wasn’t a big thing at all.
“And that’s why I create art that I do — to start sharing these histories so that people don’t wait until they’re adults to find out about the Dakota War, because nobody’s taught that in school, or a certain generation isn’t. I think nowadays they’re trying to do a better job of teaching native histories in classrooms here in Minnesota.”
Part of that curriculum has fallen to Myles herself, who started the year with an installation at the The Great Northern festival and is ending it by ramping up her new publishing company; planning for a spring show at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, and more guest teaching in the schools.
“I teach the fourth graders every year, and when I go back the next year I see the fifth graders, the ones I taught the year before, and they always come up to me and give me a hug and stuff because they missed me, even though I was only there for a few weeks,” she says. “I always have young kids come up to me, telling me they love my art.
“I wasn’t trying to make art for kids necessarily. But when I did my first art market literally every kid that walked by, their heads were just turning to my art and they were trying to drag their parents into my little art booth, and that’s when I realized that we have the same aesthetic. You know, I have friends who tell me to tone down my colors sometimes, or they say it’s really bright or something. But I’m like, ‘Well, not everybody has the same taste. I like this. Digital artists, we like the bright colors.’”