In a remarkable exhibit now showing at All My Relations Gallery, a group of contemporary American Indian artists reflect on Minnesota's bloodiest memory, the 1862 U.S./Dakota War, which happened 150 years ago. The art in DED UŋK'UŋPI- We are Here ranges from pieces filled with anger to humor to spirituality, as they grapple with the war's events and its aftermath.
Where once the Dakota people made what is now known as Minnesota their home, a series of treaties with the United States government basically swindled the land, so that by 1862, approximately 7,000 Dakota people were confined to a 10-mile strip of land near New Ulm, on the south side of the Minnesota River, according to an essay by Gwen Westerman Wasicuna that accompanies the exhibition.
Starving and hungry, members of the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute went on August 15, 1862, to the Lower Sioux Agency to negotiate for food and were rejected without payment. According to legend, trader Andrew Jackson Myrick said, "As far as I'm concerned, let them eat grass."
Two days later, violence erupted when several Dakota men attempted to steal food and ended up killing settlers near Acton, in Meeker County, marking the beginning of the war, which lasted six weeks.
Afterward, 303 of the warriors were sentenced to death, but after President Abraham Lincoln pardoned all but 40 of them, 38 were hung simultaneously in Mankato, in the largest mass execution in history. Some 1,700 women, children, and elderly were marched to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling, where many died. The next year, the U.S. Congress declared all treaties with the Dakota null and void, and the Dakota people (with the exception of the Mdewakanton band) were expelled from Minnesota, with bounties set on their heads.
'Off the Reservation (Or Minnesota Nice)' by Jim Denomie
With such a horrific history, it's no wonder the exhibit is so passionate. In the accompanying notes to Jim Denomie's Off the Reservation (or Minnesota Nice), the artist talks about fueling his anger through humor. The result is a piece that is sharply ironic and disturbing. In it, men with animal heads ride horseback through the air, while Native men with feather headdresses say, "Let's roll." A speedboat and water skier happily travel through the river, while a spirit looks angrily on. In one section, several Native men piss on a white man with his naked butt in the air, and a little ways away, white people are drinking beer. "Let them eat grass," one says. "And shit too," says another, as he holds the hair of a half-naked Native woman. In another spot, a minister is standing by a church that says "St. Penn" and he is holding his penis. Fort Snelling, naturally, is a gravesite, and above everything, a plane labeled Geronimo flies over it all. Viewing this piece is an intense experience. It speaks not just to the events 150 years ago but to a boiling anger at injustices that exist to this day. To call it humorous doesn't quite describe it, though clearly it's satirical. It's the kind of humor that feels like a punch in the gut.
'Abe's Winter Count' by Charles Her Many Horses
Another satirical work is Charles Her Many Horses' piece Abe's Winter Count, which depicts Abraham Lincoln as a puppet master, with long spindly fingers controlling a depiction of the U.S./Dakota War presented on animal hide. The artist clearly makes the point that Lincoln's policies led to the atrocities, and that it was under his watch that the largest mass execution in U.S. history occurred. Like Denomie's work, Her Many Horses' piece is jarring and forces the viewer to confront the history. But neither work feels "too much." In some ways, the weight of the history calls for work that is so filled with emotion and gesture.
Another powerful piece is Gordon Coons's 1862 Mankato, showing an American flag with the names of the executed warriors raised on the stripes. The piece is wrapped with a noose. There's also Gwen Westerman's textile work Caske's Pardon 2012, about a Dakota man who protected a white woman, Sarah Wakefield, but was charged with murder anyway.
'A War of Broken Things' by Dakota Hoska
Some artists chose to show symbolic pieces, such as James Star Comes Out's stunning and intricate horse dressing. He writes that he chose the horse because they are sacred to the Dakota. There's also Maggie Thompson's The Weight on My Shoulders, a cloak with red stripes woven with gold that honors the 38 murdered warriors. Dakota Hoska also has a poignant piece called A War of Broken Things, made of four panels filled with egg shells, referencing Diane Wilson's book Spirit Car, which talks about the start of the war, when one Dakota threw an egg on the ground, breaking it, because they weren't allowed to eat it.
Charles Rencountre's work, Releasing the Spirits Installation, is quite different from the rest of the work in the show, although it is one of the most attention-grabbing pieces. Using bronze, wood, horse hair, leather, earth, medicines, string, and cloth, Rencountre has re-created an effigy of a man holding a medicine bundle. The piece casts a peaceful energy in the gallery, in some ways counteracting the anger and dark humor of the other works.
'Releasing the Spirits Installation' by Charles Rencountre
If you haven't checked out All My Relations Gallery yet, this is the show to go see. It really is an important and riveting set of work about a history that needs to be remembered.
DED UŋK'UŋPI- We are Here, presented by All My Relations Arts and the Minnesota Historical Society, runs through September 28 at All My Relations Gallery, 1414 E. Franklin Ave. Minneapolis.