After breaking bread together and sharing a meal of Indian tacos picnic-style, dozens of people gathered together to formally dedicate “Eúŋkičetupi,” the new mural that graces the north exterior wall of the Coyote Twin Theatre.
Eúŋkičetupi in Lakota means “we are restored” or “we come back to life” and the planners and artists involved in making the mural a reality spoke of the personally restorative power of the artwork and it’s inescapable themes of creation, new life and the overwhelming power of women that too often has been ignored.
The dedication ceremony was sponsored Thursday evening, Sept. 19, by the Vermillion Cultural Association.
Shannon Cole, executive director and marketing manager of the Vermillion Cultural Association (VCA), noted that the evening’s program, held behind the theatre, was once the land of Native American tribes.
“Welcome to our lead muralists, whose beautiful work we are here to honor this evening,” she said. “Welcome to the indigenous people here today, especially our indigenous elders and the indigenous women in the audience. Your history, your faces, your stories are vital and we are here to honor you.”
The Vermillion Cultural Association, she said, owns the building “that now includes this incredible piece of art. It’s the VCA’s vision that we serve as a collaborative partner that strengthens a community where art and culture thrive and are alive for everyone.”
This summer, she said, the community made art together.
“We talked together about who we are and where we live and whose story needs telling,” she said. “With the leadership and vision of some remarkable young artists, we brought ourselves, our home and those stories to life.”
The design of the mural presents a strong message about the importance of women in all cultures while telling the Sioux creation story. This story begins with a worldwide flood and a lone survivor, a pregnant woman.
An eagle carries her to the top of a peak where she gives birth to twins, thus beginning the Sioux nation. The mural depicts a strong Native American woman nursing the infant twins and, in effect, beginning human civilization in the world.
Major themes incorporated in the mural after planning with the artists at community meetings include restoration, rebirth, femininity, womanhood, identity, water, landscape and the importance of representation.”
April Matson, a Lakota woman and mother of two daughters who served as a volunteer painter of the mural, noted that while growing up in the Black Hills, she didn’t have any indigenous role models.
“I think that’s a pretty common narrative among Native folk,” she said. “That feeling of invisibility began to affect me more as my kids started getting older, as they began school and realizing that their skin color was different from others, so the dialogue began.”
Matson said she began a personal journey of becoming more aware of indigenous traditions. It’s a process that can feel lonely as a person of color and “as a minority in a place where your ancestors were the first to cultivate this land.
“When I heard the ideas of this mural, that it would feature strong Native American women, I was completely inspired … I was hopeful that our community would support the darker shades of brown to be mixed and painted on this wall, because I knew it would be so beautiful and felt so important.”
Little did she know, she said, that the mural would feature a 20-foot breast-feeding woman looking strong like a true warrior. As she and her children joined the artists to help create the mural on the first volunteer paint day, she felt like crying.
“I was proud. I felt honored to be witnessing the beginning stages of something so beautiful,” Matson said. “I’m so grateful that when I look up at this mural and when my two kids look up at this mural, we see ourselves. We see colors that resonate with us and where we came from.
She said that she’s incredibly grateful to live in a community that sees the value in mixing those brown tones.
Inka Mani, one of the lead artists of the mural, noted that Project Coordinator Amber Hansen secured funding through a grant from the Change Network. Those grant funds were used to buy materials and to support the Mani and the other two lead artists, Reyna Hernandez and Liz Skye.
Hansen, Mani said, began a community discussion asking the Native artists and others in the community the possibilities they envisioned with the mural project.
“Through the conversations, one thing that had always struck me was ‘what are we missing? What would I like to see and what would be meaningful for us as a Native community to share with others?’”
He noted that a Native artist, there often isn’t a dialogue or recognition of the vital role of women.
“They really are part of that backbone which builds us up. We had multiple meetings and that always was at the core of why we wanted to create this mural -- to really make sure that Native women’s voices are at the center and are really well represented,” he said.
During the planning process, the mural’s design underwent multiple revisions.
“It was really a great experience, and this large and in charge mother who is breastfeeding twins was really significant to me,” Mani said, who found the image of the woman in a display at the Smithsonian.
The mural includes a background design of a star quilt and large waves crashing in the foreground to represent a Native American creation story of a great flood with one woman surviving through the help of an eagle who transformed into a man and the couple brought the twins into the world.
“I was really fortunate to be a part of this,” he said.
Liz Skye, one of the lead artists, said she was excited when she learned of the plans for the mural.
“I had no idea what to expect, but I was very blessed to have Reyna and Inkpa and Amber, as well as the rest of the community members, there to help take these ideas that I had and pick and choose which ones worked well,” she said. “In that process, we found each other’s strengths and we used them to the best of our abilities.”
Skye said the mural has great personal meaning.
“Lack of representation is a really big issue for us and as a young, Native woman who grew up in Sioux Falls, I did not see myself anywhere, ever. I did not have many role models in the community for me to reach out to, and when I came here, Reyna was one of those first role models I quickly met. She didn’t know that at the start of the process, but I very quickly let her know.”
Reyna brought up incorporating the star quilt design into the large work of art, Skye said, and it reminded her of Biblical art of Jesus.
“It was a cool motif to include, but in our own way,” Skye said. “It was a very intimidating process to begin with and I couldn’t have done it without the help of everyone else. To me, it’s important for young women who are not raised around culture or our traditions and don’t have access to these spaces -- as they grow up, they feel even more like they don’t belong in these spaces.
“I sort of felt that way myself until I began to realize that this is an issue that we all have to work together to confront,” she said, “and make these young women who are detached from their communities and their ceremonies feel safe and comfortable in these academic spaces where we are not fully represented.”
She said in recent years, during her last four years of college, she has witnessed an indigenous renaissance.
“I see it as people coming back to life,” Skye said, adding that the name of the mural, Eúŋkičetupi, has great personal meaning.
“It means we are all coming back to life together,” she said. “To me, this mural represents that life that we’ve all found on our journeys that led us here, together. It’s very special and I couldn’t be more happy with how it turned out … and I’m happy that you’re all here to enjoy it with us.”
Lead muralist Reyna Hernandez said the response of the Vermillion community to the mural has been overwhelmingly positive. She thanked everyone who made the evening meal and the program that followed possible Thursday evening.
“I feel so honored to be asked to be part of this process and part of this project,” Hernandez said. “Vermillion is my home and it has been my community for such a long time and I really wanted to be able to make something that the members of the community could be proud of and something that I could also be proud of.
“What we made, I think, is remarkable,” she said. “It took so many skilled hands and so much time and so much thought. It was a great experience.”
Hernandez thanked the VCA for providing the wall space and complete creative control over the imagery that was completed.
“That trust that they gave to us artists to create something for their building was something I really appreciated and I know Amber and Liz and Inkpa appreciate that as well,” she said.
Hernandez also thanked Cole for all of the assistance she provided.
“I think we brought her to tears a couple times with our mural design when we presented it to the community and to board,” she said. “Seeing somebody have that emotional response to what we were doing was something that really kept me motivated and kept me feeling like what we were doing meant something. That’s really all I can ever ask for as an artist is to know that what I am doing is meaningful and that it means something to someone.”
Hernandez said she was excited when Hansen asked her to be part of the mural project, because Hansen helped make the mural that exists on the theatre building’s east wall successful. She felt relieved when Mani and Skye became part of the project as lead artists.
“I’ve had the great privilege to see them both grow as artists in their own right and they have so much to say and they have so much passion,” Hernandez said, “along with dedication to their education and preserving our culture. I know that’s something that I value and older indigenous generations value as well, as well as our youth.”
The mural design came about after several meetings with the Vermillion community.
“We asked the community members what they felt was missing from our visual landscape in our public art spaces and from those meetings we did story-telling, we had poetry writing, we had drawings and we had lots of very long conversations,” she said. “The conversations were really surprising to me; I wasn’t really prepared to have these kinds of challenging conversations with members of the community. That was a really important part of the process.”
From the meetings, the artists mined major themes that kept emerging from meeting to meeting.
“Those themes were femininity and how each woman defines that for herself, identity, representation, landscape, motherhood, storytelling, water, specifically the Missouri River and the floods that have impacted this community both presently and historically,” Hernandez said. “That duality of water being a source of devastation but also one of nourishment and life-giving was something that really resonated with me and we wanted to capture in our mural.”
The artists were excited when Mani showed them the image of the breast-feeding woman.
“We thought it was so beautiful for its ability to tell a story of survival and motherhood and femininity and life,” Hernandez said. “That image captured everything that we had taken from those community meetings, so we knew we wanted to include her as a central figure in whatever we were going to make.”
In the process of working with the various ideas and designs, the artists discovered that their art was telling the Sioux creation story.
“That was really a profound moment,” she said. “I felt like we were where we were supposed to be, we were doing what we were supposed to be doing and we were telling the story we were supposed to be telling. Up to that point, we were just taking what the community had contributed to our ideas and so it really felt like everything had come full circle, that everything was universal and that this was not just our story. It’s everyone’s story.”