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Duluth’s First Public Mural by and for Indigenous Artists

Artist Votan Ik of NSRGNTS stands before the nearly completed mural.

To me, it’s rather astounding to think that Duluth has been without indigenous representation for this long. I imagine people from all over the world have been visiting Duluth as tourists and have only gotten to see one side of this place, unaware of the precolonial history that it’s tied to. This mural is a long-awaited step toward reaffirming our presence as indigenous people. It’s unapologetically native — an unmistakable vision that grew into fruition along the stretch of West Second Street, firmly declaring the presence of a people long pushed to the side from mainstream narratives.

With a visual representation now in place, we are finally being seen.

The mural depicts a larger than life Ojibwe jingle dress dancer painted to look over Onigamiinsign, or what is now called Duluth. She will stand, watch over and protect Ojibwe homelands occupied by the state of Minnesota. The town has been a space devoid of indigenous representation by indigenous people since its inception as an American city; although the Native community in Duluth draws its population from diverse tribes across North America, a formal and contemporary acknowledgement of this demographic has yet to be included in the city’s public, creative landscape. The mural will attest to the resilience of indigenous people, despite a lack of equitable representation.

It’s a collaborative project initiated by nonprofits Honor the Earth and the American Indian Community Housing Organization. Artists from the group NSRGNTS painted the 30×25-foot mural on the side of AICHO’s main building and described it as one of their best works to date. The process itself came with a few hiccups here and there, including a scheduled unveiling midway through July that was more of a project introduction (due to weather issues posed earlier in the month). Votan Ik, his partner Leah, and Derek Brown, all California-based artists and project leads, worked almost every day for over a month to complete the mural and were given a warm welcome by the community at large. The weeks leading up to its completion, families and community members flocked to the rooftop to meet with the artists and share food and stories, adding their own brushstrokes to help the artists along the way.

Artists Derek, Leah and Votan.

The mural itself is representative of many things, and I think everyone takes something different away from it, depending on their background and connection to indigenous cultures. It depicts a native woman fulfilling her role as a water protector, a dancer, a healer — she wears a bandana covering her face, a symbol reminiscent of both the collectivist ideologies of the Zapatista movement and the resistance and resilience of protectors at Standing Rock. The face covering also alludes to the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women in our community; as rampant of an issue it is in the Twin Ports, it’s a topic that still doesn’t get talked about in mainstream conversations. Alone, as a water protector, she reminds of the dangers of big oil and the importance of our lake. These issues all come to a boiling point in the woman’s eyes as she gazes intently at passersby.

Rumor has it, the artists will be back on Sept. 23 for a grand opening and artist talk. AICHO is excited to welcome them back to share the story of their inspiration and process.

Until then, my final thought is this — Duluth needs more murals! Public art brings people together and can bring hidden stories to light in the community … this mural has become history in the making and the fact that it exists in our city is truly a blessing.

Miigwetch to the American Indian Community Housing Organization, the Enterprise Foundation, Honor the Earth and the Fond du Lac Reservation for sponsoring this mural project.

*Note this isn’t the first mural done by an indigenous artist in Duluth, the mural by CHUM on 1st Avenue West is by Lakota artist Rocky Makes Room For Them.

All photos by Ivy Vainio.

11 Comments

bhall

about 3 months ago

I appreciate this interpretation of the mural. I had been wondering about the symbolism and significance of the images depicted. I'll be sure to come to the artist talk. Thank you for this beautiful, yet arresting work!

Bob Kane

about 3 months ago

So, for the first public Indigenous mural in Duluth you chose to depict a Native wearing a coward mask ... your ancestors must be impressed how today's Native youth is embarrassing them. What a damn shame. Of course after the NoDAPL scam I wouldn't expect anything less than Cali graffiti like this being allowed in Duluth. It is sad you couldn't produce something respectable.

lojasmo

about 3 months ago

Thanks for chiming in with the frightened white butt-hurt, Bob Kane. I think it's wonderful art. Vibrant and beautiful.

Dave Sorensen

about 3 months ago

Stunningly beautiful.

Northern_Owlbear

about 3 months ago

I for one have found this mural to be a vibrant addition to downtown, in a visual sense as well as an activist challenge to cultural hegemony in Duluth. I'll second the author in calling for more murals! As an aside, are there plans (and/or what has been done) to help protect and preserve the mural into the future? Our weather can be unforgiving to public art.

Jeremy NeVilles

about 3 months ago

Bob Kane is truly the problem with Duluth - White people being experts on all ethnicities besides their own. Bob take a look at all the stupid "white people" art around the city, does it reflect you as an individual? Is it really stupid white people art as I just proclaimed? Native people are not one universal person so one art piece is not going to reflect the diversity of all Indian people. I agree that the hat is not typical Ojibwe, it's common wear in the SW and yeah the artist is from LA so imagine that ... he would probably use images and style that he's used to using. It's a beautiful piece of art, not a totem or religious artifact, so I'm going to enjoy it for what it is and what it represents.

Claire

about 3 months ago

I love love this powerful mural! Thank you to AICHO for adding so much to downtown Duluth and to its arts scene in so many ways. That pic of it in the DNT looked like a painting, it was so perfect. P.S. The only people who call California "Cali" are would-be-hipsters from elsewhere who don't know any better.

Dave Sorensen

about 3 months ago

Nay-sayers are free to make their own murals and demonstrate their talent by doing something positive and creative. If you're looking for a theme, may I suggest a Confederate monument up to its knees in a rising sea coated by an oil slick? For an extra dash of color you could include one of those red, made-in-China MAGA hats.

Bret

about 3 months ago

Beautiful! Thank you.

Michelle LeBeau

about 3 months ago

Bob Kane - I really do not want to give your statements much attention as you are obviously an uneducated, privileged white boy who doesn't know much about art, history or current facts about violence against Native women ... this mural is a righteous and beautiful presence in our city ... she speaks volumes if you are willing to stand still and listen ... she is proud, beautiful and strong and she represents hundreds, thousands of stories that need to be told. Every day I am grateful to the artists who created her, gave her life and the community who showed up to support, encourage and participate. On Sept. 23 AICHO and others will welcome everyone to come and celebrate and honor her and what she represents.

Moira Villiard

about 3 months ago

@Northern_Owlbear Both plans are in place! :)

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