A prestigious public art project for a downtown Minneapolis park is in limbo after the artist chosen for the job quit amid accusations of cultural appropriation.
The situation echoes numerous examples of people featuring Indigenous being called upon to prove their identity across Indian Country, raising questions about membership – who is allowed to practice Indigenous arts and who decides.
Inkpa Mani, a 25-year-old Dakota-speaking artist who lives in Wheaton, Minnesota, was selected in March by an independent panel of community members to create a stone sculpture overlooking St. Anthony Falls. Opened in 2021, the Water Works Park is sacred to the Dakota, who call it Owámniyomni.
Mani submitted concept designs for a series of forked pillars approximately 40 feet high in black granite and limestone. The “Y” shape refers to Bdote, the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, he said.
But in July, the artist quit. The city has not widely announced his departure or what it means for the Water Works art project.
The Documenters, a citizen journalism outlet, first reported that the Mnisota Native Artists Alliance and the Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance had complained about the project.
The crux of their opposition to Mani: Although he was adopted by a Dakota family, he is not Dakota by blood.
According to a joint statement from the organizations, many Native artists expressed concerns about Mani’s validity and the “lack of authentic Dakota representation” in the project, but they were ignored by the city.
“We say unabashedly that Indigenous artists have the sovereign right to uncover and stop cultural appropriation in their communities,” the organizations said.
“The facts were not provided”
The city’s initial call for artists stressed that applicants for its $400,000 commission should have “a thorough knowledge and understanding of Indigenous history, culture, and language…and experience in celebrating Native American culture”.
He stopped short of reserving the opportunity for a particular ethnic group. But some of those involved in the selection process said an artist from Dakota deserved the job and they were misled into choosing Mani.
“I was led to believe through his name, his application materials, that Inkpa Mani was not just Native, but Dakota,” selection committee member Mona Smith said in a statement. “The facts weren’t provided to us. And the days we live in demand complicated honesty, transparency.”
Ginger Porcella, executive director of Franconia Sculpture Park near Shafer, Minnesota, added her impact statement to the complaint.
“I wanted to stand with these artists who had been hurt by [Mani]”, she said. “It was really difficult to hear how his lies had further traumatized artists who have already been traumatized.
In her Water Works application, Mani said her family came from “all the Dakota and Lakota bands of the Great Sioux Nation.”
“I sat down with my elders and took time to listen and remember our history,” he wrote. “I am a cultural practitioner and contemporary artist working with communities in Dakota.”
Speaking to the Star Tribune, the entertainer clarified that he was born Javier Lara-Ruiz to a Mexican-American mother. She married a man from Dakota, whom he called “Dad”, when he was a child. After their divorce, he was adopted by members of the Sisseton Wahpeton tribe and integrated into the Dakota culture. Her partner and daughter are Dakota.
“When I talk about my work, it really depends on my experiences and how people have brought me into their circles and into their families, but no, I’m not Dakota,” Mani said.
He said he quit the Water Works project for reasons including his mother’s death in January, the long drive to Minneapolis, and his job as a teacher at the Tiospa Zina Tribal School on the Lake Traverse Reservation in Washington. northeastern South Dakota.
“Thinking of the city…and the different communities involved, I don’t want to be a stand in the way of anything,” he said.
“He’s part of the family”
Organizations that filed complaints against Mani called on the city to terminate its contract and issue a public statement acknowledging the “sovereignty of Indigenous artists over the management of their arts and culture.”
They also demanded that city prosecutors undergo training on the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, a federal law limiting the right to market Native American-made products to tribal members or other persons certified by the tribe as Indian craftsmen.
A July 8 city statement sent to dozens of people and organizations involved in the project apologized for “the pain this experience has caused within the community.”
Minneapolis spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie said city staff encouraged community members to meet with Inkpa Mani directly, but they declined.
The entertainer’s resignation did not sit well with panelist and Dakota historian Syd Beane, who said he still believed Mani had more knowledge of Dakota language and culture than the other candidates.
Traditionally, people who were adopted or married into tribes, joined in the ceremonies and practiced the values became part of that community, he said.
“That’s more what it seems to me that Inkpa Mani did,” Beane said. “Increasingly, these identity issues are forcing people to come back and study their family history, and that’s a good thing. … But I think we have to be very careful when we make a decision on someone else’s identity.”
Beane said Mani will need to be clear about not being an enrolled tribal member going forward.
Mani’s adoptive family in South Dakota is frustrated that the complaining organizations did not seek their perspective.
Patricia Gill-Eagle, who co-founded the Tiospa Zina Tribal School, calls Mani her grandson. As a child, she sat him by the fire and taught him the stories of their people. His family adopted him and gave him his Indian name in a ceremony.
“He sun dances with us. He knows everything we know,” Gill-Eagle said. “Whoever talks about him, they don’t know him and they don’t know us.”
This summer, Mani joined a delegation of horsemen from Sisseton Wahpeton who participated in the White Earth Nation Treaty Days Pow Wow, recounting a historic encounter between the tribes for the first time in more than 50 years.
“Of course Inkpa was part of it because he’s part of the family,” said LeeAnn Eastman, a member of Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate who calls Mani a brother.
She said if the Minnesota plaintiffs had allowed the family to take time off work and travel the four-hour reservation in Minneapolis to defend Mani, they would have.
“Traditionally, our adoptive ‘hunka’ relationships were even stronger than blood,” said Tamara St. John, a tribal historian and South Dakota legislator. “My main objections to this attack on him are…that they extend to disrespecting him as an Aboriginal person and seek to separate him from all the cultural upbringing to which he has been exposed and received from the elders .”
After Mani resigned from Water Works, a cousin of his father-in-law involved in the Minnesota complaints filed the same complaint in Sisseton to stop another of his stone sculptures – that of a Dakota woman – being development there, St. John said.
She organized a community meeting on August 17. The complainant did not show up, but Mani’s friends and family did. The women of the Buffalo Heart Society, who work in tribal preservation, endorsed the sculpture by offering prayers with tobacco.
The person who filed the complaint did not respond to a request for comment.
‘A wake up call’
Dakota artist Marlena Myles, who advised the city on the Water Works project, said she felt cheated by Mani. She contacted him directly and urged him to clarify his ancestry.
“I wish he would stop letting people assume he’s Dakota,” Myles said.
Over the years, Mani has been vague about his identity.
In a 2017 video interview, he said he was “adopted to the Dakota and Sioux way of life.” In a 2021 podcast, he said, “I’m Dakota.”
Lakota artist Keith BraveHeart attended the University of South Dakota with Mani. He advised the young artist on navigating the world of Indigenous arts, particularly when progressing to projects involving large sums of money.
BraveHeart sees an opportunity for discussion across Indian Country about what it means to create and share Indigenous art. He said he respects the artists involved in the Minnesota complaints, but wonders if they could have worked with Mani to settle things.
“When we see certain types of incidents happen where he starts to go back to this materialistic game, or gets muddy…it eventually becomes unproductive,” BraveHeart said. “There should be more patience here. There should be an understanding that comes from all of this.”
Along with native identity issues, shifting tribal eligibility and ancient traditions of adoption are on the rise in Indian country, said Robert Lilligren of the Native American Community Development Institute in Minneapolis.
In 2019, Red Lake Nation enacted a major membership expansion moving away from quantum blood, a federally imposed requirement that enrollees have at least 25% tribal blood.
And this summer, members of the Chippewa tribe in Minnesota voted to eliminate their quantum blood requirement, which had excluded the children of many tribesmen from full citizenship.
“The movement has been towards permissiveness and broadening the definition,” Lilligren said. “I think that was a wake-up call to the community that we need to formalize this conversation.”