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.
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.
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