Melting mounds of snow, disintegrated browning leaves from last fall and muddy trails pop up around the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, just east of downtown St. Paul. Sandstone bluffs border the north side and train tracks separate the park from the Mississippi River to the south. The first signs of spring are slowly showing up, but it's what's hidden in plain sight that most interests Marlena Myles, a self-taught Native American artist (Spirit Lake Dakota) based in St. Paul.
When Myles, who had spent part of her childhood on Little Earth in south Minneapolis, moved from Rapid City, S.D., back to the Twin Cities, she discovered the site of what is now Indian Mounds Regional Park, which abuts the nature sanctuary. It was around 2008, and the area was an abandoned train depot station covered in graffiti.
"I was exploring with my sister, not sure what we were going to do," she said. "I used to practice my flute, and she was sprinkling water onto the ground … [As the] water evaporated, it looked like there were footprints dancing to the music."
And it made Myles feel the presence of spirits.
Further research revealed more about connections to the land. Years later, it would lead to the "Dakota Spirit Walk," an augmented reality public art installation that seeks to honor the land, educate and connect people to the Dakota history and culture. The five stops along the walk in the nature sanctuary take visitors through an otherworldly merging of screen and scene.
Myles designed the animations and Todd Boss of Moving Museum of Virtual Art, an app-based museum that is now known as Revelo, directed the project, supported by Pixel Farm Studios.
"It has become a real part of our consciousness to recognize the lands that we are inhabiting," said Boss. "I think that's the beginning of a valuable relationship we need to have with the past and the present and with the land itself."
Taking the 'Dakota Spirit Walk'
The walk uses geolocation, audio and 3-D animation to guide visitors through encounters at the nature sanctuary, which was once home to the Dakota village of Kap'óža.
Once visitors arrive at a specific position, the GPS identifies them as being there, said Matt Weier, technical director for interactive projects at Pixel Farms. "Then the [Revelo] app uses augmented reality to superimpose 3-D animation through the portal of their phone," he added.
Since the nature sanctuary parking lot is currently under construction, visitors need to park in the lot at the Indian Mounds lookout, and head to Commercial Street for the nature sanctuary entrance. From there, the Revelo app will lead the way.
"We had to do a lot of testing going back and forth to the park to make sure the location made sense from the sky view and on the ground," said Zach Chapman of Pixel Farms, who worked as the main developer on the project.
At each of the stops, Myles' animated creations of the Dakota spirits are superimposed on the landscape, transporting one to another level of consciousness. Visitors who have headphones can listen to Native speakers tell stories at each location. The encounters feature spirits such as Grandmother Earth, Grandfather Stone and Thunder Being.
Uŋčí Makhá (Grandmother Earth) appears in the sky near Imníža-ská (White Cliffs) wearing modern-day clothing — a black shirt with a message to care for the environment and people's health and colorful necklace — and surrounded by a dazzling array of flowers, reminding visitors that this is Dakota homeland.
At another stop, a giant face with red stripes across it appears in front of the sandstone. It is Íŋyaŋ (Grandfather Stone), who tells people of "Imníža Ská Othúŋwe" (village along the White Cliffs) to remember and honor those buried there.
"I wanted to create pieces that would connect people on a spiritual level" and go beyond educating them about the burial mounds or that a village once existed there, she said. "I want people to see how the Dakota had a relationship with it long ago and how are we connecting with the land."
Wakíŋyaŋ, the Thunder Being, activates the stop at Wakháŋ Tipi Cave, which has two openings and is located in the sandstone bluff that borders the edge of the park. A spring flows from the cave to fill a pond. The cave once had petroglyphs on the walls, including one of a rattlesnake, the protector of medicines and burial mounds.
"I think augmented reality can be a metaphor for Indigenous connection to the land," said Myles. "We have always had these historical stories and they are there, but most people can't see them unless they have a Native person telling them, seeing it through their eyes. This can open people's eyes."
'Dakota Spirit Walk'
Where: Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, E. 4th St., St. Paul. Trail map available at https://marlenamyl.es
When: Daylight through 11 p.m. daily.
How: Revelo AR app can be downloaded on iPhone or Android.