Bear and buffalo are taking pedestrians by surprise at Lake Bde Maka Ska (Lake Calhoun). No, they aren’t the living, breathing versions of those creatures; they’re images stamped into the sidewalk.
Angela Two Stars is the artist behind the deer, eagles, fish, turtles, wild rice, sage, cornflowers, and other wildlife depictions paired with their Dakota names on the south side of the lake. It’s all part of a collaborative project with the City of Minneapolis Art in Public Places Program, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and community members.
An enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, Two Stars was born and raised on the Sisseton Wahpeton Lake Traverse Reservation in the northeast corner of South Dakota. She moved off the reservation at age 21 to follow her mother to a new job in Michigan. There, she attended Kendall College of Art and Design. When teachers noticed her last name, they pushed her to explore her heritage in her artwork.
“I just wasn’t in that place at that time,” she says. “When I grew up, I was really never a part of the culture. I didn’t dance at powwows. We didn’t practice any traditional religions. I didn’t feel like I was knowledgeable enough to share that through my art. Plus, I was hundreds of miles away from my reservation, so I didn’t have any access to elders.”
In 2013, she returned to the reservation with her family. “As an adult, I was more understanding of my culture and everything involved in reservation life,” she says. “You hear stories about reservations and they can be negative – poverty, drug use, alcoholism – but for me it was this incredible sense of family and community.”
While working as a preschool teacher, she received an email from the director of the Dakota Language Institute who shared that there were only 70 fluent speakers remaining, and that the average age of those speakers was 78 years old.
“It was this shock wave for me. I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know that the status of our language was so dire,” Two Stars says. She was determined to do something to preserve the language; incorporating it into her artwork was the best way she knew how.
When she saw Minneapolis art gallery All My Relations post a call for artists for a public art project honoring Mahpiya Wicasta (Cloud Man), she knew she’d found the avenue for her language-infused art. Two Stars recognized the name Mahpiya Wicasta from stories her father had told her about their ancestors; when she called her father, he confirmed they were indeed Cloud Man’s descendants. Two Stars submitted to the project and was chosen for the sidewalk stamping at Bde Maka Ska.
Though her BFA is in drawing, Two Stars has been fascinated by print-making since college. “Once I got involved in this language revitalization, once I discovered I was really passionate about it, I found printmaking to be the best medium to translate my message,” she says, citing a parallel between the imperfect nature of printmaking and the way language is passed down from one generation to another.
While creating the Lake Bde Maka Ska designs, she focused on fun, playful, recognizable images that children would relate to. She also let community group input and the area’s natural wildlife, ecology, and history inform her artistic choices. After she created the designs, a fabricator made the stamps and a concrete team poured and pressed them into the sidewalk as she watched on.
“When I first went there, it felt very natural, like I was home,” she says of Bde Maka Ska. “It sounds silly, but there was this comfort and this knowledge of: This is where my ancestors came from. It was really special.”
Two Stars is part of a team of artists that includes Sandy Spieler and Mona Smith; they will be working on the Lake Bde Maka Ska site through next summer. More artwork designs, including a media component and a decorative railing, are in development.
“I know the lake is so important to the people of Minneapolis. To know some of the history of that space and the Dakota people who lived there, that’s what’s really important to me,” Two Stars says. “After the whole project’s completed, to be able to bring my children there and their children there to see what I did – that’s something special to be able to share with them.”