ChangeMakers: Marlena Myles, educating through art and innovation

woman stands in field in profile
Marlena Myles stands at the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in St. Paul.
Kathryn Styer Martinez | MPR News

Throughout November, MPR News is featuring Indigenous Minnesotans making history to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

Marlena Myles, 35, is a self-taught professional artist. She is Mohegan, Muscogee Creek and an enrolled member of the Spirit Lake Dakota tribe. Born in Connecticut, she grew up in Minneapolis and Rapid City, S.D., before returning to live in St. Paul. 

Myles approaches life with a desire to learn. In the fourth grade, she taught herself algebra. When she was 13, she started to learn computer coding languages. Instead of attending college, she made art using her self-taught graphic design and coding skills. By incorporating all three, her art strikes a path focused on elevating the Dakota people.

“I think Native people have a tradition of innovation,” she said. “So anytime we get like a new tool or something from Europeans or other tribes, [we] incorporate it and create new things out of it.” 

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Myles’ work teaches people about Dakota language, culture and history. Her artist statements share personal stories blended with cosmovision. In the illustration “Haŋwákhaŋ Thašúŋke, Northern Lights Horse,” she pays homage to the teachings of White Buffalo Calf Woman while recounting a memory of her cousin teaching her that if she whistled and sang to the lights, they would dance for her. 

Marlena Myles' “Dakota 38 + 2 Prayer Horse”
Marlena Myles created “Dakota 38 + 2 Prayer Horse” in response to demonstrations by Native American communities against the Walker Art Center’s decision to include “Scaffold” in its sculpture garden.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Museum of American Art

When she made the piece, “Dakota 38+2 Prayer Horse,” Myles says she did it because, “I felt like not many people in Minnesota are taught about that event in history.”  

It was also a sort of response, according to Myles, created after the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis was to include “Scaffold,” a structural replica of the gallows where 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, Minn., in 1862. It was the largest mass execution in United States history.  

“It's like the most tone deaf, embarrassing things I've ever seen a museum do in my life.” Myles says, “I never thought that art would ever be that offensive to me. But they did it.”

When she saw that art could be a vehicle to educate, she became inspired to teach people things of significance beyond “living in teepees and hunting buffalo.” She creates free coloring pages that teach people about Indigenous plants, maps of Dakota places that existed before the Twin Cities and animations that teach Dakota culture and philosophy, like star knowledge. Myles sees her art as a bridge that makes Dakota culture more accessible. “That's what I care most about, removing ignorance [and] putting information in my art that helps remove that ignorance.”

Her work has been profiled extensively in the past four years and her work has received numerous awards, most recently at the 2020 Red Cloud Art Show where she received first place for photography/digital art.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be an Indigenous Minnesotan right now?

It means celebrating my ancestors’ survival and passing on the knowledge to the next generation and educating greater Minnesotans about us.

As a Dakota person, your No. 1 duty is to be a good relative: to other people, to the planet, to your ancestors — through honoring their spirits. It's teaching people what Dakota means, like, “What does the word Dakota mean? What does it really mean? What does it mean to be a Dakota person?”

Every part of the Dakota way of life was connected through symbolism, and also being a good relative. They say [the word Dakota] means friends or allies, but it really means being able to make peace with other people. The word for peace treaty, Wodakota, means "peace with everyone". 

[To] other people who are not Dakota: You're on our homeland, so maybe there's things you can change about yourself to become more like us, to be good relatives and respect other people, respect their diversity, and be interested in their cultures. Their cultures don't have to be a scary thing.

What figures have shaped you or made you who you are?

Definitely my parents and my grandparents. Morals, ethics, integrity, respecting the earth, all that — I learned from them as a kid.

If someone gives something [to] a kid, that kid would share it with the other sibling because they know they’re to share with their family members. Sometimes, I feel like my grandma would test us. So she gave my older brother a really nice piece of candy, like a lot of candy. And you know, your mind is like, “I could just get all of this and they won't even know!” But we'd always pass the test by sharing whatever they gave us. I feel like that way, even when your parents pass away, you have these morals to guide you.

What's your vision for the future generations of Indigenous people in Minnesota?

I think the future will be one where we heal from past wounds and find our culture to be a source of strength.

It starts with learning about your culture. You learn the Seven Sacred ceremonies that the White Buffalo Calf Woman gave us to become better people, better relatives. Even smoking the pipe, people don't know that that means building a bond with the spiritual world, with the natural world in which your ancestors, like you, do all these things in one gesture. When you go to the park with all these trees, all these plants, they all have their medicine, they all have power. They're your relatives. So the way you respect yourself is the way you should respect those lives. 

If you're going through tough times or something, you always have relatives that you can rely on, that you can find peace with, that you can help sort out your mind, or whatever it is that is troubling you. And also, you learn what community is. You learn how to help your community.

That's why I think culture can be a source of strength in real time. Like, you don't just think about yourself, but you think about how can you give back to other people if you have more. How can you give back so that the poorest are not the poorest anymore. You know? Like, there shouldn't be one super rich person and everybody else [is] starving. Everybody should be starving or everybody should be thriving. 

So, thinking about the future generations, it's not about taking everything and letting everything around you be completely dead. Like, “Congratulations, you won. Now the planet's dead.” That's not the whole point of existing. It's to improve your life, your community's life force and also make sure that your future generations are learning from you — learning the right things, and have the ability to thrive too.

Where do you feel most at home in Minnesota?

I feel most at home in the Twin Cities. I feel like it's a place of opportunity. A lot of people here are open minded about learning and respecting Indigenous people and are open to changes and to living as partners on this land.