On Saturday afternoon, Marlena Myles sat beneath a canopy next to her artwork at the Spring into Uptown event in Minneapolis. The sun kissed the pavement in a city celebrating the return of warmth at a local expo with a series of multicultural vendors and performers.
Myles, a Native American and self-taught multimedia artist, had on display a collection of her creations, all inspired by her Dakota heritage. There were digital illustrations of tigers and foxes set to illuminated backdrops. There were stickers and keychains. I purchased from her a necklace with a silver buffalo on a pendant with a bright purple background and a glass etching with the Morning Star, a symbol of hope and optimism in Native American tradition.
The St. Paul artist is one of the panelists for Thursday night's Mary Ann Key Book Club event titled, "A Community Discussion of 'An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People,' " which you can register for on the Hennepin County Library website.
For Myles, her artwork is a beacon for her community and a message about the land beneath our feet right here in Minnesota.
"It's about teaching people about Dakota history and removing ignorance in the world through my art," she said. "When I grew up, I didn't really see anything that said this is a Dakota homeland, so I wanted to create art that would be in classrooms and around the [Twin Cities] so young people see themselves, and then use the land as a teacher. Through art — augmented reality — I can put these stories at the exact sites so they can see the world through a Native person's eyes or a Dakota's person's eyes."
When we had lunch a few weeks ago at Hope Breakfast Bar in St. Paul, I told Myles why I am so mystified by artists.
My art career peaked in second grade. Back then, my art teacher would send some of our best work to a sister school in Japan. I was lucky to get my stuff on the wall of our classroom. I figured that was a sign. I am amazed that there are people on this planet who can create, draw and produce these images when I am barely staying in-between the lines with my 5-year-old's coloring books.
Myles said she learned she had a gift at an early age. As an eighth-grader, she wrote an essay that detailed her vision of becoming a digital artist — most of her work is done on a computer — and illustrator. Today, she combines her passion and her dedication to the history of her community to produce breathtaking work.
Through my conversations with Myles and other panelists for Thursday's event — Sharon Day, executive director of Indigenous Peoples Task Force; Katie Phillips, an assistant professor of American Indian history at Macalester College; Pearl Walker-Swaney, who is Lakota, Dakota and Anishinaabe, and a birth worker and yoga instructor; and moderator Ramona Kitto Stately, an educator and a member of the Santee Sioux Dakota Nation — I have learned a lot about an Indigenous community determined to preserve its history.
But its message and the message of "An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States For Young People" is also one that centers its present and future. While the amount of history in this book, told from the perspective of Indigenous authors, is immense and layered, its initial proclamation is equally significant.
From the introduction: "This book tells the story of the United States as a colonialist settler-state, one that sought to crush and subjugate Indigenous populations. In spite of all that was done to them, Indigenous peoples are still here. It is breathtaking, but no miracle, that they have survived as peoples. This is a history of the United States."
I want to use the Mary Ann Key Book Club as an active force against the "I didn't know" responses we've heard too often about marginalized communities, their respective histories and their ambitions. To that aim, this book is a necessary read.
While I understand how words can be used to tell our stories, through Myles, I have learned more about the use of art as a form of activism and connection for a community that has been overlooked.
"It lets them be seen," she said. "Some people feel invisible when no one hears their stories. And then they get to see Dakota people's stories or community stories or the art that we do. … They get to see themselves created in these artworks. I think that connects people to see something they haven't seen."
I don't always know if these efforts can make a real impact, but then I talk to other folks doing this work and I borrow some of their hope when my cup feels empty. I felt that way when I recently asked Myles about the value of Thursday's panel discussion.
"I hope people realize they have power to change things with whatever talent they might have," she said. "They might not think about who they have connections to or the impact they have, but I think all humans, we all have an impact."
Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for the Star Tribune and a national writer and radio host for ESPN. His column appears in print on Sundays twice a month and also online.