Twin Cities artist Angela Two Stars bent over a table, balancing a scissors in one hand as she gently tugged at a piece of black plastic.
She slowly peeled it away to reveal a lowercase "n" — part of the word "Wothehinda," which means "love" in the Dakota language — created for a new artwork being unveiled Saturday in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
"Okciyapi (Help Each Other)" was commissioned by Walker Art Center after it came under fire for "Scaffold," a sculpture based in part on the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men following the U.S.-Dakota War in 1862 — the largest mass execution in American history.
Intended as a critique of capital punishment, the 2017 installation of "Scaffold" in a public park on former Dakota land sparked outrage. Protesters besieged the Walker, carrying signs such as "Not your story" and "Hate crime." A deluge of criticism led the museum to apologize for reopening a historical wound without consulting the community. The sculpture was dismantled by Native crews after a Dakota-led ceremony, and buried.
It is no accident that Two Stars' new artwork was placed where "Scaffold" once stood.
"One of the goals of the sculpture is that it had a healing effect," said Iyekiyapiwiƞ Darlene St. Clair, a professor of American Indian Studies at St. Cloud State University who was part of the Walker's selection committee.
"Okciyapi," a 47-foot-wide labyrinth-like structure with concrete seating, is envisioned as a gathering space. It contains 24 panels highlighting Dakota words and phrases, and QR codes that cellphone users can scan to hear stories told by Dakota speakers.
In the center, a bubbling circle of water reflects the sky. It's a reminder that "Minnesota" comes from the Dakota phrase mni sota makoce — "land where the waters reflect the clouds."
Two Stars views language as crucial to the healing process: "Language is like a drop of water, a ripple across an entire pond."
Raised on South Dakota's Lake Traverse Reservation, the artist was disturbed when she learned a few years ago that there were only 70 fluent Dakota speakers left in her tribe, the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate.
So she decided to use her art to raise awareness of Dakota language revitalization efforts.
Her own grandmothers had lost touch with the Dakota tongue when they were forced into Indian boarding schools. But she was inspired by her grandfather, Iḣawaŋyakapi Orsen Bernard, who worked in the tribe's language program for 15 years, creating a dictionary, preschool language tests and other resources before his passing in 2018.
Through that legacy, she said, "his and other speakers' language knowledge could ripple across generations."
"Okciyapi" was commissioned with the help of an Indigenous Public Art Selection Committee, formed as part of the Walker's reconciliation process. The committee sought an artist who could take on the responsibility of healing without becoming re-traumatized, said member Kate Beane, of the Flandreau Santee Sioux.
"Angela went on this natural journey where she came to terms with what had happened there [with 'Scaffold'], and was able to create this beautiful art piece that speaks to issues of great importance in our community but also speaks to the future," said Beane.
The Walker's executive director, Mary Ceruti, came onboard in 2019 following the departure of former director Olga Viso, who had personally selected "Scaffold" for the garden.
"It is a huge moment to say that a living Dakota female artist has this incredible work installed in the Sculpture Garden in the context of all these other international artists," said Ceruti. "And it also says something about who the garden is for — that people see Dakota language and culture reflected in the garden is a way that welcomes people that might not have come."
Ceruti said the reconciliation process has also forced a reckoning with the Walker's own institutional history, rooted in the wealth amassed by lumber baron T.B. Walker: "The founding of the Walker connects to Native dispossession."
Twin Cities artist Seitu Jones, who is Two Stars' friend and mentor, noted the slow process of "decolonizing" the museum.
"The Walker, like many other white-led institutions, has a mixed record as far as working with artists of color and treating those artists with dignity and respect," said Jones, who collaborated with another Black artist, Ta-Coumba Aiken, on a series of works installed in the garden two years ago.
Jones believes Two Stars' piece will bring a new sacredness into the garden.
In anticipation of the installation of "Okciyapi," the artist's uncle and another elder came out to bless the space.
"For those that are second-language learners, we have seen the ways that Dakota language has been a healing practice," said St. Clair, the St. Cloud State professor.
Two Stars, who speaks some Dakota with her kids, already sees how bringing the language back might change the future.
"My daughter is aware of the lack of Dakota language" in schools, she said. "They'll have Spanish and Chinese and all these other languages, and she will say, 'Where's the Dakota?'
"With her, the joy is back, it's fun. … It does not have that same level of shame or pain as it did with my grandma."
Ceremony: 11 a.m. Saturday with a children's activity from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. inspired by Dakota words.
Where: Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, at the corner of Hennepin Av. and Vineland Pl.