The artist resigned from the public art commission after local communities raised questions

A young Dakota-speaking artist who won a prestigious commission to design public art in downtown Minneapolis has resigned from the project after controversy in the city’s local community culminated in a formal complaint alleging he practiced cultural appropriation. filed in April. Inkpa Mani, the artist at the center of the dispute, insists that his commitment to Dakota culture and traditions remains authentic and that he voluntarily ended his involvement because “his intention with this project was never to hurt people.” The story was first reported by the Minneapolis Journal Star Tribune.

At the heart of the disagreement was whether Manny was the right artist to lead a $400,000 public art project designed to honor the Dakota people who inhabited the area around Owámniyomni, otherwise known as St. Anthony Falls — a waterfall right in downtown Minneapolis — and Waná i Wíta, also known as Spirit Island, a sacred limestone island not far from the city. Between 80 and 120 applicants submitted proposals for the open call for the water park area, and Manny won the competition committee in March.

Manny was adopted by a Dakota family and raised in Dakota traditions. But he was not born Dakota by blood. Born Javier Lara-Ruiz to a Mexican-American mother, he grew up with his stepfather, Dakota – who he says he still calls “Dad” to this day. When his mother and stepfather divorced, members of the Sisseton Wahpeton tribe adopted him. Today, he has a Dakota partner and daughter and teaches at the Tiospa Zina Tribal School on the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota.

Getting the commission, Manny says, “meant a lot.” “My mom literally grew up on the streets of St. Paul,” Manny said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “She had a baby at 16, was out of school and just trying to survive at that point. For my mother, for me and my generation, just the thought that I could leave a significant impact on the landscape and show that people of color can really make great art in a city that has historically done a lot of damage to marginalizing people – it was just a dream come true.

After being selected for the project, Manny says he contacted other finalists to invite them to join the project. As part of his work, he hoped to hire two to four Dakota artists “with bloodlines from the four different bands of the Minnesota Dakota bands.” But soon after, questions arose about whether Manny had misrepresented himself to secure his offer.

The call for artists released by the city did not specifically call for a local artist, although the project’s goals were to shed light on the site’s local history and be a welcoming place for Indigenous people. In Manny’s application, he wrote that his family “descended from all the Dakota and Lakota bands of the Great Sioux Nation, the Oceti Sacowini.” He added that he has a “unique understanding of our cultural environment and contemporary life that is often overlooked and misrepresented by non-Natives in history” and described himself as a “Dakota speaker” who had “sat with [his] elsewhere.”

Artwork by artist Inkpa Mani

But some found Manny’s application materials deceptive. In an impact statement provided to the city, Mona Smith, a member of the selection committee, wrote with regret about their role in Manny’s selection and felt “let down.”

“I was led to believe by his name, his application materials, that Inkpa Manny was not only native, but Dakota. In old ways, I understand that he could have been accepted as a Dakota, adopted, brought in, learned the language and the values,” Smith said. “But the facts were not given to us.”

They also suggest that Mani’s presentation of the artwork as Native art may be in violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. In June, the mayor of Minneapolis met with members of the Dakota community to hear their impact statements on how Manny’s order affected them. In July, the city of Minneapolis sent a brief statement to several dozen people informing them of Manny’s decision to end his contract and the city’s continued commitment to a public art project at the same location.

On September 6, the Minnesota Native Alliance and the Minnesota Native Artists Alliance released a joint statement on the topic.

“We unequivocally say that Indigenous artists have the sovereign right to expose and stop cultural appropriation in their communities,” they wrote. “The city has so much to learn and understand about cultural etiquette, Dakota culture, history and the arts.”

The Minnesota Natives Alliance and the Minnesota Native Artists Alliance have not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

In an email to Hyperallergic, the city of Minneapolis said, “We deeply value the role that local artists play in our community and it is essential that this project supports them and elevates their creative rights. We are grateful to the generous local artists and councilors who have entrusted us with the vision and goals for this project and will be bringing them together again to discuss any concerns and next steps.”

“We regret the pain this experience has caused the community,” the city continued.

For Manny’s part, he is disappointed that those who filed complaints against him did not communicate directly with him. He says he set up three separate meetings with the complainants through City Hall, each time driving four hours on the interstate to get there. Each time, “nobody showed up,” he said. According to Star Tribune, Manny’s adoptive family is also concerned that they were not consulted by the complainants.

“Increasingly, these identity issues are forcing people to go 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 about someone else’s identity,” committee for selection member Sid Bean told the Tribune.

In recent years, some institutions, including cities, universities and museums – many of which have long overlooked the value of inclusion – have made a concerted effort to improve their representation of Indigenous people and views. Such efforts have been accompanied by a rise in so-called “pretentious” cases in which some have been accused of fraudulently claiming Native identity — most recently, in the case of former Emily Carr University professor Gina Adams. These conversations parallel criticisms of the dangers of overemphasizing notions of blood quantity, which some see as a colonial construct in itself.

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