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Northern Spark 2019 shines spotlight on Native American community

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Members of Rosy Simas Danse rehearse
Members of Rosy Simas Danse rehearse "Weave Here." As the dancers move, images from films created by Simas will be projected on the performers' reflective costumes.
Courtesy Rosy Simas

The late-night Twin Cities arts festival Northern Spark returns Friday and Saturday. This year, one of the places it will set up is in the center of the Native community in Minneapolis. A section of Franklin Avenue will close to traffic for a cavalcade of projects.

Northern Spark 2019 will use three sites: the Commons in downtown Minneapolis, the Hallie Q. Brown Center in the Rondo neighborhood of St Paul and the American Indian Cultural Corridor — the stretch of Franklin Avenue between 13th and Bloomington avenues in Minneapolis. It's home to one of the densest urban Native American populations in the country. 

Northern Spark co-director Sarah Peters says it's a great place to highlight this year's theme.

"We are here: resilience, renewal and regeneration," she said.

The theme resonates with this year's Northern Spark artists.

Visitors to Rosy Simas's house get a warm greeting from Cleo the dog. Simas is a Seneca dancer and choreographer. She is collaborating with Ojibwe poet Heid Erdrich for a project called Weave Here. Dramatic floor-length costumes made of heavy reflective paper hang on a rack in her living room. 

"Grab that side there and then fold yourself in like a blanket," she said as she helped a visitor try one on.

Dancers will wear the costumes during an hourlong procession down Franklin beginning at 11 p.m. on both Northern Spark nights.

"They are meant to look like a blanket, but also snow covering a mountain," she said. "The stitches you see on the outside represent the sewing together of animal skins."

Mobile projectors will light up the costumes with images from films Simas has made depicting the interdependent and interwoven nature of the world. She's pleased Northern Spark will draw crowds to the cultural corridor on Franklin Avenue.

"For me, it's very important in the visibility," she said. Visibility for Native artists, the larger Native community and the issues it faces.

Angela Two Stars curated a show on missing and murdered indigenous women.
All My Relations Gallery manager Angela Two Stars in the show she curated about missing and murdered indigenous women called "Bring Her Home: Stolen Daughters of Turtle Island."
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Angela Two Stars also looks forward to good crowds. She runs the All My Relations Gallery in Minneapolis and curated its current show "Bring Her Home: Stolen Daughters of Turtle Island." It focuses on missing and murdered indigenous women.

Two Stars stands in front of a striking portrait of a Native woman crossing a busy street. She's wearing traditional dress, but no one is looking at her.

"Because, yeah, this is an invisible epidemic that affects indigenous women," she said. "We don't have the same level of attention in the media when women go missing. Families often search on their own. They have to advocate for law enforcement involvement."

"The Biker," a sculpture by Victor Yepez, wears a carnival mask.
"The Biker," a sculpture by Victor Yepez
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Two Stars says she hopes Northern Spark visitors will develop a better awareness of the issue. 

Artist Victor Yepez is also hoping to spread understanding.

In an alley not far from the Midtown Greenway bike trail, Yepez and his colleagues Huk Stoike and Richard Parnell are testing their pedal-powered sculpture called "The Biker." As Stoike's legs whirl, a long bike chain animates the figure of a cyclist with beautiful wings which slice through the air.

Yepez says Friday and Saturday, a spotlight will shine up at "The Biker," casting a huge shadow on the side of a Franklin Avenue store. 

"So, the wings will be 'whoosh, whoosh' on the wall," he said, "Projecting the big wings and the puppet movement."

Passersby are encouraged to pedal a while. A native of Ecuador,  Yepez says the sculpture celebrates the cycling culture in Minneapolis. There will be a number of projections along Franklin Avenue for Northern Spark. Jonathan Thunder's animations of Ojibwe stories will illuminate the corner of 14th and Franklin avenues. 

Co-director Peters says she hopes the Native community will turn out to see the projects and the non-Natives will be get a better appreciation of indigenous lives.

"And that they have deeply held and gorgeous relationships to this place and we need to honor that and understand that," she said. "And art is absolutely the best way for that to be experienced."

Three Northern Spark sites have a total of 36 projects. All are listed on the event's website, as well as transportation options between them.