At first glance, Gordon Coons’ painting 1862-Mankato 38 may look like any other American flag. But it isn’t. Look closer and you’ll see a rope, the kind used to tie a noose, framing the edges. You’ll also see the names of 38 Dakota warriors who were hanged in the largest mass execution in U.S. history on December 26th, 1862. Most had been convicted by a military court of participating in the US-Dakota War that had begun in August that year. Unrepresented by any legal defense, the 38 were hanged in Mankato in front of a crowd of thousands of white spectators.
It was just the beginning of the terrible retribution that would be meted out to the Dakota, and the war and its aftermath, including a legacy of anti-Indian racism, underlie a riveting art exhibit called Ded Unk’unpi/We Are Here,
on view until Jan. 13 that was on view until Jan. 13 at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul. The exhibit features the work of 20 Native American artists and reflects a wide range of responses to the war and the past 150 years.
Visitors to the exhibit may be struck by the glaring disconnect between the paintings of the powerless being displayed in a home built by one of Minnesota’s most powerful founders. James J. Hill was the well-known railroad tycoon who arrived in Minnesota in 1856 and amassed a fortune. His impressive home, now owned by the Minnesota Historical Society and operated as a museum, features chandelier lined hallways, mahogany floors and sweeping views of the Mississippi River. It is unlikely that Hill envisioned a day when his home would be the site of a viscerally raw art show that deals with the complex memories and emotions of Dakota people and other American Indians during this 150th anniversary year of the Dakota War.
Many of the works are deep emotional responses to the painful events that took place during the conflict. Some of these event are still felt today. Gordon Coons, Julie Buffalohead and Jim Denomie are three of the 20 artists whose works touch upon the suffering felt by the Dakota during the war. The title of the exhibit comes from the 38 Dakota warriors who were hanged in Mankato on the day after Christmas. It was said that as each warrior stepped forward to have the noose put around their neck, they said, Ded Unk’unpi. We are here.
Curator Brian Szott readily acknowledges the complicated nature of some of the work in the show, such as the flag with the names of the executed, painted by Coons. “The American flag must be a complicated symbol for Native Americans,” said Szott. “They’re proud to be American, and yet the flag is also a symbol of oppression and a symbol of their demise.”
Ojibwe artist Jim Denomie tells the story of the uprising vividly in his painting, Off the Reservation/Minnesota Nice. Denomie is known for using bold colors and rough brush strokes in his work. His subjects are depicted with crudely drawn open mouths with buck-teeth shaded in bright orange, pink or a moody blue. He employs rabbits, birds and winged horses as symbols in his work.
Most of the time, Denomie uses humor to deal with some of the most painful subjects relating to the history and mistreatment of Native Americans. But the work he created for the exhibit is raw with emotion and anger. In one corner of the painting, Denomie depicts a starving family. A mother and daughter hold out a plate while the head of a man with a noose around his neck holds out a spoon.
“When I set about to do this painting, I purposely decided to keep the story more raw and brutal,” Denomie explained when we met at the James J. Hill house to discuss his work.
The show is a collaboration between the Native American Community Development Institute, All My Relations Gallery and the Historical Society. Diyani White Hawk, the chief curator for the All My Relations Gallery in Minneapolis, said she wanted the artists to respond in any way they wanted to the war.
“Often times if a subject matter is tough to look at, but if you bring it forward from this artistic place,” said White Hawk. “It may be easier to digest and it may be easier to access and people might not run away from it.”
The U.S.-Dakota war started in August of 1862 after the Dakota, restricted to a narrow reservation along the Minnesota River, were left starving after a season of crops failed. Money was owed to them by the federal government, but was tied up because of the ongoing Civil War. Exhausted, hungry and desperate, a group of Dakota hunters decided to take food from a settler’s farm. Five whites died during the raid, sparking a decision by many Dakota to go to war to try to win back their ancestral lands. Hundreds of settlers and soldiers were killed, but the war spelled ultimate disaster for the Dakota, who were imprisoned, exiled, executed and banished from their homeland.Those who survived the war were marched to Fort Snelling from the Lower Sioux agency. There, they spent a bone chilling winter huddled right below the present day Mendota Bridge. On the road to punishment and exile, they left a trail of tears still felt by their descendants today.
The Minnesota Historical Society was founded by Governor Alexander Ramsey. He vowed to banish or exterminate the Dakota after the war ended. Perhaps it is a testimonial to the Dakota, who still are here, that 150 years later, the institution that Ramsey founded has now purchased eight of the works in the We Are Here exhibit, including Jim Denomie’s work, Off the Reservation/ Minnesota Nice.
“It’s as it should be. It belongs in this place for people to see the true history of what happened,” said Denomie.
Other artists in the exhibit include: Joe Allen, Angela Babby, Karen Beaver, Todd Bordeaux, Avis Charley, Michael Elizondo Jr., Evans Flammond, Charles Her Many Horses, Dakota Hoska, Henry Payer, Charles Rencountre, James Star Comes Out, Maggie Thompson, Jodi Webster, Gwen Westerman, Dwayne Wilcox and Bobby Wilson.
Event: “Ded Unk’unpi—We Are Here” Art Exhibit
When: Now through Jan. 13, 2013
Place: James J. Hill House, 240 Summit Ave., St. Paul MN 55102
Hours: Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. Closed holidays.
Admission: $2 to visit the art gallery or free with a house tour of $9 adults, $7 seniors and college students, $6 children 6-17; free for MHS members.