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"City Indians" use art to stake their claim

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Making a new map
Viewers at the Ancient Trader's Gallery are invited to create a new map of the Twin Cities, sharing their own memories and stories of Native American ife.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Mona Smith says many people think the term "city Indian" is supposed to be ironic, but in the case of her new exhibit, it's quite serious. Smith grew up in Red Wing, Minn. Yet she says she always felt more at home in the Twin Cities. It was only as an adult that she figured out why.

"This is where the Dakota people began," says Smith. "This is where a huge part of our history is and is centered. The confluence of the two rivers is where we actually originated as a people."

Artist Mona Smith
Multimedia artist Mona Smith created an exhibit that uses multiple voices to tell the stories of American Indian life. She says the reality is too complex to be told by any one voice.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Smith is enrolled in the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Community in South Dakota. She's a multi-media artist and her latest work, at the Ancient Trader's Gallery in Minneapolis, seeks to give back the Twin Cities to the Dakota and Ojibwe people.

One of the pieces in the exhibit is a simple, stylized map. At first it just looks like blue markings on the wall, but upon closer inspection a viewer can recognize the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, and neighboring lakes. There are no modern American place names, just a few Dakota names and images of Native American life before the land was completely taken over. On a table in front of the map are some pens and Post-it notes. Viewers are invited to draw their own images or write down their memories and attach them to the map. Another map across the room provides detailed information of Dakota place names for areas that are now completely urbanized.

"Already at opening I saw happening what I hoped to see happen," says Smith, "which is people pointing at places and sharing stories with each other about those places and what they knew about their personal family history or Dakota history."

On opening night, a steady crowd streamed in and out of the exhibit, then enjoyed a dinner of Indian tacos in the hallway. One visitor was Denise Renee Marlowe, who was born and raised in south Minneapolis and is one-quarter Lakota. She's worked at Northwest Airlines for the past 33 years. She says she found the exhibit informative, but sobering. She hadn't realized that Minneapolis was so important to the Indians. Nor did she know that Fort Snelling served as a concentration camp for Indians in the 1860s. But she does remember her father talking about how he and his brothers and sisters were abused as children living in a boarding school after their mother died.

"I do know that life for them was different growing up on the farm or in the boarding school or on the reservation," says Marlowe, "and then coming to the city... it's sort of a lost environment for them."

Two men in a trunk
One of the key items in the City Indians exhibit is the back half of an automobile, made to look like a police car. It's a reference to a 1993 incident where policemen put two inebriated Indian men in the trunk of the car to take them to the station.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Marlowe is an example of someone who's succeeded in the modern city. But there are many others who haven't made the transition. The centerpiece of the City Indians exhibit is the back half of an automobile that's been made to look like a police car. The trunk lid is open. It's an allusion to the 1993 incident in which police officers stuck two full-grown Indian men into their trunk to transport them to the station. Marlowe says she came to the exhibit specifically to see the car.

"To know that two live men who were very inebriated who were put in the trunk with the lid locked shut...how awful for them and how degrading," says Marlowe.

Artist Mona Smith says she and other Indian people have a hard time imagining such a thing happening to any other race.

"And it's become a centerpoint for Indian people in the city," says Smith. "Both something that we turn around in our own conversations with a dark humor, and that when we talk about it in certain safe places, tears come. It's become a really potent symbol for us, and so it felt like a really good opportunity to turn the symbol around."

Listening to Indians
Artist Mona Smith seeks to transform the symbol of the police trunk by projecting into it the stories of everyday American Indians. She says Indians aren't frequently heard in the media.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Smith has projected a video into the trunk of the car. When people look in, they see everyday Indian people talking about their lives, and how they were affected by the 1993 incident. Smith says she's attempting to convert the trunk from a symbol of abuse to a place where voices are heard.

She says Indians aren't listened to very often; you don't find them sharing stories on the TV. So she felt it was important to give a voice to people who are often unheard. City Indians runs through January 27. Afterward, Smith says, pieces of this exhibit will be used as part of a larger project to teach Native history in schools.