We Are Here

Thirty-four stars, 13 stripes, 38 names.

A familiar image greets visitors at the James J. Hill house’s current exhibit, Ded Unk’unpi—We Are Here. But this isn’t your usual encounter with the symbol of our nation. No smiles; no hand over heart; no national anthem. Stars and stripes fade under the weight of those names—the 38 Dakota victims of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. After artist Gordon Coons literally weaves these forgotten men into our country’s star spangled banner, the emblem of pride instead evokes sorrow, confusion, and shame.

“A Meeting of the
Grandfathers,” Lyle Miller

For more than a century, much of what occurred during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 has been confined to shadows and whispers. To some, the pain of remembering is still too agonizing, the scars too deep. Consequently, the truth behind the conflict leading up to the executions has been shrouded in a cloud of intense emotion. But many, including the 20 American Indian artists whose work appears in the exhibit, are using the war’s 150th anniversary to seek it out.

The exhibit—which I caught at All My Relations Gallery a few months ago—picks up where the Minnesota History Museum leaves off. In July, I visited their commemorative exhibit, the U.S. Dakota War of 1862. In a blog post outlining my experience, I described their strategy of recovering the truth, a careful reconstruction of events borrowing information, artifacts, and experiences from decedents representing both sides of the tragedy. But truth does not imply objectivity, nor does it ignore feeling. In We Are Here, visual art becomes a safe space where this feeling—pain, resentment, anger, hope, pride, etc.—comes to the forefront, and stories can be told freely. The Minnesota Historical Society has added works from eight of the artists to its permanent collection.

As in the case of the flag, you’ll see grade-school heroes in a harsh new light. In Dwayne Wilcox’s satirical contemporary ledger drawing, The Crow is to Die For!, Abraham Lincoln, known to many of us as the great emancipator or Honest Abe, assumes a far more villainous role. In Off the Reservation (or Minnesota Nice) painter Jim Denomie presents a dark, violent portrayal of historical tensions that have lingered into today’s society; the image dominates the room with its masterful mixture of raw rage and strange beauty. My insides turned as I viewed the painting’s various depictions of injustice, which illuminates the difficulty of confronting these unspoken realities. But while many of the works were hard to swallow, leaving with a newfound perspective was very much worth the temporary discomfort.

My one regret about my encounter with the collection was that it was far too short. Be sure to set aside enough time to truly engage with each work, receive its message, and reflect upon it. It may not change your opinion, but it is sure to change you.

Ded Unk’unpi—We Are Here
Through January 13, 2013
Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sun. 1 to 4 p.m.
Closed major holidays
James J. Hill House, 240 Summit Ave., St. Paul

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