Artist Marlena Myles spent her teenage years in Rapid City, S.D., but unlike peers who swooned about crushes and went to sports practice, she went to the library and learned all she could about Russian history.
"Being Native in America, in school you learn a history that does not apply to you," said Myles, who is Mohegan, Muscokee Creek and a member of Spirit Lake Dakota.
She discovered similarities between the way the Russian and U.S. governments treated Native people, and became fascinated by the "different classes of Russian people along with their need for Alaskan Natives for their own survival."
That interest has led to a new solo exhibit, "Dynamics of Russian Colonialism in Alaska," which opened last weekend at the Museum of Russian Art (TMORA) in Minneapolis.
Myles is also part of the Great Northern Festival, which she launched Wednesday with a digital animation inspired by nature and her Dakota heritage. "Innerworld Prism" will be projected at various sites through Sunday (check the fest's Instagram).
In her TMORA show, she explores the relationship of Russians and Alaskan Natives before Czar Alexander II sold the territory to the United States in 1867. Each work contains a slice of Russian-Alaskan history infused with Myles' dreamy illustrative touch.
She incorporates neon colors, Russian-inspired patterned borders or illuminated landscapes and people. In her colorful, kaleidoscopic portraits of a sea otter and Northern fur seal, animal spirits incorporate the idea of naǧi — the "parts that form who you are, or your ghost, in Dakota," she said. Many of the works were made on her computer, then printed out onto metal or canvas.
While doing research for the show, she noticed parallels between Alaska and Minnesota, where the Dakota people also struggled with forced assimilation, new technologies and a fight to preserve their language and culture.
There was one notable difference, Myles said. Russian Orthodox clergy helped preserve the culture of Native Alaskans while defending them from abuse by Russian fur traders.
Her illustration of Saint Peter the Aleut — a native of the Kodiak Islands who was considered a martyr by the Russian Orthodox Church, but may have been completely made up — draws inspiration from Russian icons. Its border has a weird 1980s neon aesthetic. She works with vectors — computer graphics made in Illustrator or Photoshop that can be resized but still look smooth and polished.
A self-taught digital artist, children's book illustrator and educator of Dakota culture, language and history, Myles nerds out on languages. She learned the Cyrillic and Hangul (Korean) alphabets in her teens and early 20s, and is currently learning Dakota. She's studied Latvian off and on for the past 10 years, too.
Born in Connecticut, where her dad's tribe is from, she moved to Little Earth in south Minneapolis in 1992, and Rapid City six years later. It was there that Myles experienced what it was like to be treated like a second-class citizen. As soon as she turned 18, she moved back to the Twin Cities and eventually landed in St. Paul, where she's lived ever since.
At any given time, she has her hands in several projects, encouraging creative friends and family alike (one of her three siblings is also an artist) to put themselves out there.
"I look at her as kind of a big sister," said Dawí, a Dakota language specialist who met Myles through a Facebook comment and wound up narrating a story she animated for the Northern Spark festival in 2019. "She is kind of fierce and she scares me … [but] she has her heart in the right place."
He considers her a world thinker, someone who found her own way without going to college. "There's just a lack of resources for young people, especially people of color, to get into school," he said. "Maybe they excel but they just are not made for the cookie-cutter kind of stuff. That's how I see both of us."
In the works
The pandemic didn't slow Myles down. She is working on an installation titled "Dakota Spirit Walk," an augmented-reality experience that will guide visitors through the sacred lands at Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and Indian Mounds Regional Park in St. Paul. It's launching this summer or fall in collaboration with MoMoVA, an app-based museum project.
Myles is committed to community and ensuring that the next generation has access to Dakota language and culture. Wiyounkihipi (We Are Capable) Productions, her children's book publishing company focused on Dakota language and culture, will go live online by mid-February. Books should be available by the fall.
"She is incredibly driven to heal the next seven generations through her art," said Dakota children's book author Tana idaŋ To Wiŋ/Blue Hummingbird Woman. "She brings out our cultural beauty. She doesn't necessarily focus on the traumatic stuff. … I think that's really beneficial for elders and the children."
Myles' desire to visualize all these ideas sprang to life when she got her first computer. She was only 12 or 13, long before it was socially acceptable to sit at a computer all day. Her love of nerding out with technology connects her to other weirdos out there.
"The thing about being a Native person is that we aren't expected to be nerds," said Dawí. "There are so many stereotypes for different kinds of Indians and she defies a stereotype. … We're sending Star Trek memes to each other."
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Dynamics of Russian Colonialism in Alaska: Marlena Myles
Where: Museum of Russian Art, 5500 Stevens Av. S., Mpls.
When: Through Feb. 28 at 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10-4 Sat., 1-5 Sun. Early hours for vulnerable visitors 9:15-10 a.m. Tue. & Thu.
Admission: $13 adults, $11 seniors, $5 students, free for kids under 13.
Info: tmora.org or 612-821-9045.