On the Coteau des Prairies, a glacially carved plateau in eastern South Dakota, artist Erin Genia will hang a 20-foot banner from a tower that stretches 80 feet off the ground. The work is titled “Wičaȟnpi,” which translates to “star” in Dakota, a language of the Sioux Nation.
The Nicollet Tower stands on the Lake Traverse Reservation, where Genia spent her formative years. She is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe.
“When I go home, I know there’s not a lot of resources for art,” Genia told Hyperallergic. She said the project stemmed from her desire to bring artwork back to her reservation. Genia has launched a GoFundMe page to support her project and hopes the fundraiser will allow her to host an event for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate community.
The banner will depict the morning star, an important Dakota symbol. Genia’s family has a long history of depicting the motif on quilts, and now the artist has extended the tradition into her own practice. Over the last several years, Genia has created other public artworks portraying the Dakota star, including installations at the nearby Tufts University and the Seattle Center.
“I found that to be a really powerful experience, because the work is made for access by a public audience,” Genia said. “And because it’s in a public space and directly in contact with the outdoors, it really can be in conversation with a site.”
Genia explained that Dakota people found refuge on the Coteau des Prairies after they were forced from their homes in the Minnesota River Valley during the 1862 Dakota Uprising. (The tower’s name does not reflect this history — Joseph N. Nicollet was a French mapmaker who visited the area in the 1830s.)
The work will also honor the artist’s sister Carolyn Genia, who died last year at the age of 27.
“Our community, like a lot of reservations and Native American communities, has been hit really hard by the pandemic,” Genia said. “I saw this banner as an opportunity to come together in a healing way and honor my sister.”
Genia said “Wičaȟnpi,” like the tower, will be visible from away. Cut-outs and hardware from Dakota jingle dresses will allow it to move with the wind.
A climb to the top of Nicollet Tower offers a wide view of the surrounding landscape. The spot is a tourist destination, an attribute Genia sees as a way to engage non-Native audiences in addition to the Native people on the reservation.
Genia aims to install “Wičaȟnpi” the week before Memorial Day. It will remain on Nicollet Tower through October, when the artist says the winds will become too strong for the artwork.