Inkpa Mani was awarded a commission to design a public art piece in downtown Minneapolis. (photograph by Elisha Marin; all images courtesy the artist)

A young Dakota-speaking artist who won a prestigious commission to design public art in downtown Minneapolis resigned from the project following controversy within the city’s Native community, culminating in a formal complaint that alleged he had practiced cultural appropriation filed in April. Inkpa Mani, the artist at the center of the dispute, insists that his engagement with 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 newspaper Star Tribune.

The kernel of the disagreement was whether Mani was the right artist to helm a $400,000 public art project meant 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 made submissions to the Water Works park area open call, and Mani won the competitive commission in March

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

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

Upon being chosen for the project, Mani says he reached out to other finalists to invite them to join the project. As part of his work, he hoped to hire two to four Dakota artists “with blood descendancy from the four different bands of the Minnesota Dakota groups.” But soon after, questions arose about whether Mani had misrepresented his identity to secure his bid.

The call for artists posted by the city did not explicitly call for an Indigenous artist, though the project’s aims were to shed light on the Indigenous history of the site and to be a welcoming place for Indigenous people. In Mani’s application, he wrote that his family “comes from all the Dakota and Lakota bands of the Great Sioux Nation, the Oceti Sakowin.” He added that he had a “unique understanding of our cultural background and contemporary life that often gets overlooked and misrepresented by non-Natives in history” and described himself as a “Dakota language speaker” who has “sat with [his] elders.”

An artwork by artist Inkpa Mani

But some found Mani’s application materials deceptive. In an impact statement provided to the city, Mona Smith, a member of the selection committee, wrote regretfully about their part in selecting Mani and felt “misled.”

“I was led to believe through his name, his application materials, that Inkpa Mani was not only Native, but Dakota. In the old ways, my understanding is that he might very well have been accepted as a Dakota, adopted, brought in, learning the language and the values,” Smith said. “But the facts were not provided to us.”

They also suggested that Mani’s representation of his artwork as Native art could be in contravention of the Indian Arts and Crafts Law of 1990. In June, the mayor of Minneapolis met with Dakota community members to hear their impact statements on how Mani’s commission had affected them. In July, the City of Minneapolis sent a short statement to several dozen people, informing them of Mani’s decision to end his contract and the city’s continued commitment to a public art project at the same site.

On September 6, the Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance and the Mnisota Native Artists Alliance issued a joint statement on the topic.

“We are unapologetically saying that Native artists have the sovereign right to uncover 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 Indigenous Business Alliance and the Mnisota 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 Native artists play in our community and it is essential that this project supports them and uplifts their creative rights. We are grateful to the generous Native artists and advisors who entrusted us with the vision and goals for this project and will reconvene them to discuss any concerns and next steps.”

“We are sorry for the pain this experience has caused within the community,” the City continued.

For Mani’s part, he is disappointed that those who lodged complaints against him did not communicate with him directly. He says that he set up three separate meetings with complainants through the mayor’s office, each time driving four hours on the interstate to get there. Each time, “no one showed up,” he said. According to the Star Tribune, Mani’s adoptive family is also dismayed that they were not consulted by complainants. 

“Increasingly, these identity issues, they’re forcing people to get back and study the history of their families, and that’s a good thing … But I think we have to be very careful when making a decision about somebody else’s identity,” selection committee member Syd Beane told the Tribune.

In recent years, some institutions, including cities, universities, and museums — many of which have long neglected the value of inclusion — have sought to concertedly improve their representation of Indigenous people and views. Such efforts have been accompanied by the rise of so-called “Pretendian” cases in which some have been accused of making fraudulent claims to Indigenous identity — most recently, in the case of former Emily Carr University professor Gina Adams. These conversations have been paralleled by criticisms of the perils of overemphasizing notions of blood quantum, which some view as a colonial construct in itself.

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.