Days before Ramsey County and the city of St. Paul are set to unveil new, more inclusive artwork in historic meeting chambers, some members of the Dakota tribe say they felt left out of the process.
On Tuesday, two Minnesota lawmakers contacted the Ramsey County Board on behalf of members of the Dakota community who said they felt “invisible” and unheard.
“Members of the Dakota community felt they had been left out. They would have liked to have been part of the conversation,” said Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton. “There are a number of elders and Dakota artists that would have liked to participate in the decisionmaking. We have a very active Dakota artist community.”
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, said she’s heard similar criticisms of the project.
Lawmakers said it’s important for Dakota people to be part of the process because St. Paul and Ramsey County occupy what was once Dakota land.
Crystal Norcross, board chair of Oyate Hotanin, a St. Paul-based Indigenous arts and social justice nonprofit organization, said the process was not welcoming to Dakota artists. She said Dakota artists’ initial concerns that their work would be used as a “Band-aid” to be displayed next to racist historic depictions were dismissed early on, resulting in many Dakota artists choosing not to participate.
“It wasn’t inclusive. They didn’t want to tell our stories,” said Norcross, who lives in St. Paul and is a member of the Sisseton Wapheton Oyate, which is part of the Dakota tribe.
On Tuesday, Ramsey County commissioners said they take the criticism seriously but they ultimately voted unanimously to move ahead with the installation of the four new pieces of art completed by a diverse group of artists, including one northern Minnesota artist with Anishinaabe heritage.
The new artwork will cover all four of the original 1930s murals painted by Chicago artist John Norton depicting larger-than-life images of white men standing over much smaller images of laborers and Native Americans. The original murals underneath will not be damaged or altered.
The new art will be unveiled at a ceremony next week if the St. Paul City Council also gives its approval at Wednesday’s meetings.
Ramsey County commissioners said the new artwork is temporary and will eventually be moved to make room for more pieces from an even broader pool of artists.
“I do agree there needs to be continued conversation and the recognition ... that we are on Dakota land,” said Ramsey County Board Chair Toni Carter.
In December 2018, leaders in Ramsey County and St. Paul, which share ownership of the historic City Hall and courthouse in downtown St. Paul, agreed to commission new, more diverse artwork to cover some of the four original murals.
After nearly a two-year process run by the Ramsey County Historical Society that included community meetings, a call for artists and extensive interviewing, a citizen task force selected four artists: the Latinx Mural Apprenticeship Project organized by Latino nonprofit CLUES; Emily Donovan of St. Paul; Leah Yellowbird of Grand Rapids, and Adam Swanson, who lives in Cloquet on the Fond du Lac Reservation.
Norcross said members of Oyate Hotanin are upset the new artwork doesn’t reflect their Dakota heritage.
“Oyate Dakota people feel once again not heard in the process and further made invisible in this important retelling of the story of St. Paul,” according to an e-mail the group sent to Kunesh-Podein and obtained by the Star Tribune.
Norcross said her organization does support other Native American artists but feel strongly that the Dakota need to have artistic representation on the ancestral homeland.
“It feels like we are always fighting for representation all the time on all platforms,” Norcross said.
Commissioner Jim McDonough said he attended a forum where Dakota community members did object to early plans to cover up two of the original murals and leave two of the originals on display. The decision to leave some uncovered appeased “historical purists” but upset and offended others, McDonough said. Many decided not to participate further, he said.
“I respected their reasoning,” he said.
After the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May, city and county leaders agreed to cover all four of the original murals with new art.
“Our community has really changed since the murder of George Floyd,” McDonough said. “They were proven right. It’s time now for our community to move on.”
McDonough said the unveiling of the new murals next week should be a celebration.
“This is not easy stuff. We learn every time,” he said. “But I don’t want to stop or slow down this work.”