On a bluff near I-90 in Chamberlain, South Dakota, “Dignity of Earth and Sky” towers over the Missouri River. Public artist, sculptor, and South Dakota Artist Laureate Dale Lamphere created the 50-foot-tall fabricated stainless steel statue to honor the Native Nations in the Great Plains region. Since its dedication on September 17, 2016, the monument has become a tourist attraction, drawing visitors to the Chamberlain Welcome Center.
But outside of local South Dakota coverage, the statue has received relatively little attention, and recently, some have wondered why that’s been the case. In a Twitter thread about the newly unveiled Martin Luther King, Jr. sculpture in Boston, which drew controversy and criticism online, one user invoked “Dignity” as a counter-example of public art that embodies “true beauty.”
In conversations with Hyperallergic, residents and members of Native communities revealed mixed feelings about the sculpture — from joy and pride to disappointment that the work was not created by a Native artist and fears that it may contribute to harmful stereotypes of Indigenous women.
Lamphere designed the statue after creating a composite of three Lakota women aged 14, 29, and 55 years old. The outfit worn by “Dignity” represents motifs and colors traditionally found in Lakota women’s dresses: The star quilt placed on her back, assembled with varying hues of blue, symbolizes honor. Lamphere consulted a Lakota quilting circle based in Rapid City for the design. At night, the statue’s LED lights illuminate the surrounding area.
Norman McKie, a retired business person and 2011 South Dakota Hall of Fame inductee, first approached Lamphere to build a large-scale female statue honoring the Native Nations in 2014. McKie financed the sculpture’s construction, which Lamphere said totaled around $800,000. “He saw that Native women are the backbone of their society,” Lamphere explained. “They’re the ones that hold things together, and he wanted to acknowledge that.”
For the next few years, Lamphere worked with Albertsons Engineering in Rapid City to bring his designs to life while factoring in the role of natural elements like the wind and the sun. Wind moves through “Dignity,” an aesthetic choice Lamphere made with the help of structural engineers. The diamonds in the quilt are offset and vibrate as gusts pass through the area, known for its blustery climate.
The monument’s lighting ceremony included speeches from state and local officials, such as former Governor Dennis Daugaard, and a performance by Grammy-nominated Native American flutist Bryan Akipa, among other tributes. In the years since its dedication, the Department of Tourism’s website has featured “Dignity” as a state attraction.
Speaking about her reaction to the memorial, Hoop dancer and Sicangu (Rosebud) Lakota Sioux Tribe member Starr Chief Eagle told Hyperallergic that the work represents beauty and resilience. “It’s important to have works like ‘Dignity’ to remind people that we are still here,” Eagle said. “She creates awareness with her very presence.”
Clementine Bordeaux, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and a University of California in Los Angeles graduate student researching representations of Indigenous American peoples in art and media, is excited that that statue features a Native woman. She often stopped at the rest station in Chamberlain on drives back to Rapid City from Carthage College in Wisconsin, where she earned her Bachelor’s degree. Now she brings friends and visitors to see “Dignity.”
Despite her awe at the artwork’s scale and meaning, however, Bordeaux is concerned about the implications of a statue crafted by a non-Native man. On the one hand, she welcomes Native representation that doesn’t focus on police brutality, resistance movements, or anti-Indigenous violence. But she wonders why an Indigenous sculptor wasn’t selected.
“How do we embrace representation when it’s coming from a non-Native person who has the luxury of designing without the pressure of a long history of oppression?” Bordeaux asked.
These questions are further complicated when factoring in how non-Native governments and people use stereotypical images of Native women to enact harm. Manuela Well-Off-Man, chief curator at the Institute of American Indian Arts’s (IAIA) Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, told Hyperallergic that the sculpture emphasizes women’s importance in Lakota and Dakota cultures, essential to document at a time when the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women remains unresolved. However, nostalgic portraits of Native women created by non-Native men reinforce stereotypes of Indigenous cultures as “frozen in time,” Well-Off-Man notes, citing “Dignity’s” traditional Lakota dress.
Well-Off-Man echoed Bordeaux’s critique that the statue should have been created either entirely or collaboratively with a Lakota sculptor, especially since the sculpture has become a part of the state’s marketing efforts. Tourism generates about $2 billion a year in revenue, according to the South Dakota Department of Tourism. An Indigenous artist, she believes, would better represent contemporary Indigenous culture by integrating their artistic practice with their knowledge of Native Nations’ current concerns and customs.
Drawing on her research background, Bordeaux notes that a nostalgic view of Native women and cultures correlates with how governments treat Indigenous land and people as commodities. She cites Sarah Deer, a MacArthur Foundation grantee, lawyer, and professor at William Mitchell College of Law, whose book The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America connects the high rates of sexual assault against Native American women with the settler colonialist project.
“We can have this statue, but the reality is Native people are being criminalized in a way that is very violent,” Bordeaux said, alluding to the overrepresentation of Indigenous Americans in South Dakota prisons and jails. US Census data shows that Native Americans made up about 12% of the population in 2010, and according to the Prison Policy Initiative, they made up nearly 30% of the incarcerated population in the same year.
Bordeaux makes the case that, as a state, South Dakota will only endorse “safe” images and narratives of Native peoples, which is why they would promote “Dignity.” Native people are made to feel like then they should “be grateful” and “not complain” because a public sculpture was created in their honor, she said.
In 2020, hoping to provide more context about the Lakota cultures the monument honors, sculptor Dale Lamphere decided to fund the creation of signage to be displayed at “Dignity’s” base. Lamphere asked the local Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies (CAIRNS), a nonprofit that provides educational resources about Indigenous Americans, to write and design the materials. Craig Howe, director at CAIRNS, told Hyperallergic that he suggested four signs for “Dignity,” one contextualizing the sculpture and three featuring information about the Oceti Sakowin Confederacy (also known as the Great Sioux Nation). Lamphere had the signs made and installed. They were displayed for about a year before the South Dakota Department of Transportation (DOT) ordered their removal.
According to reporting by the Lakota Times, in July 2021, the DOT consulted the Governor’s office, the Tribal Relations office, and the Department of Tourism about CAIRNS’s signs. Someone noticed the posters had grammatical mistakes that needed fixing. On October 2, 2021, the signs were temporarily displayed at “Dignity” for a ceremony. Ten days later, the Department of Transportation removed the placards and later put them into storage.
The SD Department of Tourism canceled a 2022 meeting to review and revise the signs when the South Dakota Native Tourism Alliance (SDNTA), an ad hoc network of SD Tribal Nations as well as local, state, and federal partners, backed out of consulting on the project. Since then, the Department has called for volunteers to review and update the displays at the Chamberlain Welcome Center, but Howe says progress has been slow.
“Instead of correcting or replacing the existing signage, the department is doing all it can to prevent content-rich, historically accurate, and academically rigorous signage from being installed,” Howe said.
The SD Department of Tourism and Department of Transportation have not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
As for “Dignity,” the monument will continue to draw visitors. “You have people that are excited about these images. There are amazing performers because they’re proud of our community, our homelands, our culture,” said Bordeaux. “But our only option is to buy into the tourist image for survival.”
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