Artist resigns from Public Art Commission after Indigenous communities raise questions

A young Dakota-speaking artist who won a prestigious public art design commission in downtown Minneapolis has quit the project following controversy among the city’s Indigenous community, culminating in a lawsuit official alleging that he practiced cultural appropriation filed in April. Inkpa Mani, the artist at the center of the dispute, insists that his engagement with Dakota culture and traditions remains genuine and that he voluntarily ended his involvement because his “intent with this project did not never been to hurt people”. The story was first reported by the Minneapolis newspaper Tribune of the Stars.

The core of the disagreement was whether Mani was the right artist to lead a $400,000 public art project intended to honor the Dakota people who inhabited the area around Owámniyomni, otherwise known as St. Anthony Falls. – a waterfall right in downtown Minneapolis – and Waná i Wíta, also known as Spirit Island, a sacred limestone island not far from the city. Between 80 and 120 applicants submitted submissions to the Water Works Park Zone open call, and Mani won the competitive commission in March.

Mani was adopted by a Dakota family and grew up with Dakota traditions. But Dakota wasn’t born by blood. Born Javier Lara-Ruiz to a Mexican-American mother, he grew up with his stepfather Dakota – who he says calls “dad” to this day. When his mother and stepfather divorced, the members of the Sisseton Wahpeton tribe adopted him. Today he has a partner and daughter from Dakota and teaches at the Tiospa Zina Tribal School on the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota.

Receiving the commission, Mani says, “meant a lot.” “My mom literally grew up on the streets of St. Paul,” Mani said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “She had a baby at 16, wasn’t in school and was just trying to survive then. For my mother, for me and my generation, just the thought that I could leave a huge impact on the landscape and showing that people of color really can create great works of art in a city that has historically done a lot of damage to marginalize people — it was just a dream come true.

After being chosen for the project, Mani says he contacted other finalists to invite them to join the project. As part of his job, he hoped to hire two to four artists from Dakota “with blood descent from the four different bands of Dakota bands from Minnesota”. But soon after, questions arose as to whether Mani had misrepresented his identity to secure his offer.

The city’s posted call for artists did not explicitly call for an Aboriginal artist, although the goals of the project are to shed light on the site’s Aboriginal history and to be a welcoming place for Aboriginal people. In Mani’s application, he wrote that his family “comes from all the Dakota and Lakota bands of the Great Sioux Nation, the Oceti Sakowin.” He added that he had a “unique understanding of our cultural context and contemporary life that is often overlooked and distorted by non-Natives in history” and described himself as a “Dakota language speaker”. who “sat with [his] elders.”

A work by artist Inkpa Mani

But some found Mani’s application documents misleading. In an impact statement provided to the city, Mona Smith, a member of the selection committee, wrote with regret about their role in Mani’s selection and felt “misled”.

“I was led to believe through his name, his application papers, that Inkpa Mani was not just native, but Dakota. Under the old ways, I understand he could very well have been accepted as a Dakota, adopted, brought in, learning the language and the values,” Smith said. “But the facts have not been provided to us.”

They also suggested that Mani’s depiction of his artwork as Indigenous art might contravene the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. In June, the Mayor of Minneapolis met with members of the Dakota community to hear their impact statements on how Mani’s commission had affected them. . In July, the city of Minneapolis sent a short statement to several dozen people, informing them of Mani’s decision to terminate his contract and the city’s continued commitment to a public art project on the same site.

On September 6, the Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance and the Mnisota Native Artists Alliance released a joint statement on the subject.

“We say unabashedly that Indigenous artists have the sovereign right to uncover and stop cultural appropriation in their communities,” they wrote. “The city has so much to learn and understand about Dakota’s cultural etiquette, culture, history and arts.”

The Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance and the Mnisota Native Artists Alliance have not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

In an email to Hyperallergic, the City of Minneapolis said, “We deeply appreciate the role that Indigenous artists play in our community and it is essential that this project supports them and strengthens their creative rights. We are grateful to the generous Indigenous artists and advisors who entrusted us with the vision and goals of this project and we will bring them together again to discuss any concerns and next steps.

“We are sorry for the pain this experience has caused within the community,” the City continued.

For his part, Mani is disappointed that those who lodged a complaint against him did not communicate directly with him. He says he arranged three separate meetings with the plaintiffs through the mayor’s office, each time driving four hours on the highway to get there. Each time, “no one showed up,” he said. According to Tribune of the Stars, Mani’s adoptive family is also dismayed that they were not consulted by the complainants.

“More and more these identity issues are forcing people to come back and study their family history, and that’s a good thing… But I think we have to be very careful when we make a decision. on someone else’s identity,” the selection committee said. member Syd Beane told the Grandstand.

In recent years, some institutions, including cities, universities and museums – many of which have long overlooked the value of inclusion – have sought to concertedly improve their representation of Indigenous peoples and perspectives. These efforts have been accompanied by an increase in so-called “pretenders” cases in which some have been accused of making fraudulent claims about Indigenous identity – most recently, in the case of former University professor Emily Carr, Gina Adams. These conversations were accompanied by criticisms of the dangers of overemphasizing notions of blood quantum, which some see as a colonial construct in itself.

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