Angela Two Stars is taking a stand about her Indigenous culture and using the Dakota language to do it. An enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate (SWO)—a Dakota Plains tribe and part of the Oceti Sakowin Nation—she was born and raised on the Lake Traverse Reservation, located in South Dakota’s northeast corner. In 2017, with a BFA fresh in hand from Kendall College of Art and Design at Ferris State University in Grand Rapids, Two Stars and her family moved to the Twin Cities, where she had been hired as the curriculum coordinator at Bdote Learning Center, a Dakota and Ojibwe language immersion school for kindergarten through eighth grades. She had already been traveling between Michigan and Minneapolis to guest curate an exhibition at All My Relations Arts, a project of the Native American Community Development Institute, and to work on Zaníyan Yuthókca (Brave Change) (2019), a public art project at Bde Maka Ska (formerly Lake Calhoun).
Okciyapi (Help Each Other), one of Two Stars’s most recent and visible public projects, was commissioned by the Walker Art Center in 2019 for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Two Stars’s gathering place integrates Dakota words into a labyrinth-like form that connects the language to land, people, and water. Okciyapi is not, and was never intended to be, a “replacement” for Sam Durant’s Scaffold (2012), which, with the artist’s permission, was dismantled and ceremonially burned by Dakota elders in 2017.* Instead, Okciyapi is a work of healing for the Dakota people and all who visit, as well as a public acknowledgement of the Dakota land occupied by the Walker and most of the Twin Cities.
Mason Riddle: The Dakota language is central to your public art practice. Could you explain your commitment to “language revitalization?”
Angela Two Stars: I became aware of the status of the Dakota language on the SWO reservation when I returned home in 2013. I was searching for my identity as an artist, and when I learned that we had fewer than 70 fluent speakers at that time, and that their average age was 78, I decided I would use my platform as an artist to share the language through my work. I would also be able to learn the language myself, since I only had a very basic knowledge of Dakota.
Both of my grandmothers were victims of boarding school abuse. My paternal grandmother did not speak the language to her children, and my maternal grandmother passed away before I was born. My grandfather, who inspired my Walker sculpture, was my grandmother’s brother, but in the Indian way, he is my grandfather. He worked for our Dakota language program for 15 years before his death in 2018. His legacy and that of other treasured elders who have worked tirelessly to keep our language alive is my Okciyapi tribute. Okciyapi (pronounced “oak-chee-YAH-pea”), means “help each other,” and it is the advice that my grandfather gave to future speakers.
My personal language learning is a journey that I share in Okciyapi. I’ve experienced shame, sadness, frustration, and guilt in not knowing my heritage language, but I keep striving. Though it is hard to learn a language as an adult, it can be even more difficult as a person with historical trauma connected to that language. Our Dakota language is our identity. I continue to learn and share the language with my children, who know more Dakota than I ever did growing up. There is a joy in our home when we speak Dakota, and a curiosity that I think my grandparents would be proud of.
MR: You often remind people that they know at least one Dakota word. What is it?
ATS: The name of our state is a Dakota word. Mni Sota Makoce—Minnesota—means “the land where the waters reflect the clouds.” Many place names in the state are derived from Dakota words. That’s why it was comical when people complained that Bde Maka Ska would be too hard to say when the name, Lake Calhoun, was changed. Shakopee, Winona, Minnehaha, Chaska, Anoka, Chanhassen, Owatonna, and Wabasha are all Dakota words.
MR: Okciyapi continues the concerns of Zaníyan Yuthókca (Brave Change), your collaborative public art project with Mona Smith and Sandy Spieler at Bde Maka Ska. That work was completed in 2019, the same year that the lake’s Dakota name was restored. Could you describe this project?
ATS: At Bde Maka Ska, I designed sidewalk stamps that share plants and animals significant to the area and to Dakota people. My goal was to make the Dakota language visually accessible for the visitors who come to Bde Maka Ska. For example, a person sees the image of an eagle above the Dakota word for eagle, Wanbdi.
MR: How does Okciyapi express its relationship to Dakota land and Dakota language revitalization?
ATS: Okciyapi is a 45-by-45-foot, circular, white concrete seating area with 24 embedded enameled metal inlays, each of which contains a Dakota word or phrase related to values and encouragement. They are written in three Dakota orthography styles. The ground cover between the benches is a bioluminescent, blue-colored aggregate that glows at night. Four entrances access the space, with the main entrance from the east. This is significant to the four directions. In the center of Okciyapi is a domed water feature that mirrors the sky, a reference to the name Mni Sota Makoce. Dakota words such as woksapé (wisdom), wóohoda (respect), and wóohitika (bravery) are engraved on the benches. Plantings of native flowers and grasses such as sage and prairie dropseed encircle the work.
MR: You’ve described Okciyapi’s physical form as a visual metaphor for ripples in the water. Can you explain your thinking?
ATS: The ripple metaphor comes from contemplating the legacy of my grandfather, Orsen Bernard, and that of other elders who worked for our Dakota language program. Much like how one drop of water can ripple across an entire pond, one Dakota language speaker’s efforts can ripple across generations of speakers. The ripples of the sculpture—the seating elements—also invite visitors on a language journey with me. The labyrinth allows people to enter the space from any direction and choose their path to the center. This metaphor addresses how language learners enter their journeys and the challenges they may face in undoing historical and intergenerational trauma connected to the language. After my grandfather died, the Dakota language institute director said, “Orsen was like a library, and not a small country library—he was like one of those huge institutional libraries, one with massive collections and wings, and he was willing to share the language with anyone that wanted to learn; all you needed to do was sit and listen.”
MR: How does Okciyapi encourage public participation?
ATS: It is a gathering place, a place to sit and be immersed in the Dakota language, both visually and orally. There are 10 recordings, accessed through a QR code, and visitors can listen to 10 speakers sharing stories spoken in the language and a translation of the words and phrases used throughout the piece. I invite visitors to sit and listen to the Dakota language. Children are encouraged to run and climb through the piece, because children are the future of our Dakota language. I encourage people to interact with my work because learning a language takes active participation; therefore, I want visitors to be active within the piece.
MR: You’ve been working on multiple projects at an exhausting rate. What are a few?
ATS: In June 2022, Visual Land Acknowledgement, a collaboration with Marne Zafar, was installed in the windows at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in downtown Saint Paul. Gwen Westerman and Glen Wasicuna translated the Ordway’s land acknowledgement, and I created a public artwork that visually represents the document. Under the Surface: We are All the Same, installed outside Saint Paul’s Port Authority building, consists of multiple elements that create a functional seating amenity. It addresses the water filtration system beneath the site and asks visitors to contemplate what we share under the surface of our varying skin colors. For the City of Minneapolis’s public works building, I recently created the narrative mural The Number One Goal, an empathetic design responding to those who work in law enforcement.
MR: In addition to your art practice, you have also served as the director of All My Relations Arts since 2019. How do you keep all of these balls in the air while also raising a family?
ATS: I have a strong support system. My husband is my rock; he supports both my career and our family. He left his field of plant biotechnology to run our household and operate my art business. Our three kids are all very artistic, and they are a part of our life as artistic professionals.
* Originally commissioned for documenta 13, Durant’s monumental wood and steel sculpture represented seven historical gallows used in U.S. government-sanctioned hangings between 1859 and 2006. One of those hangings, the largest execution in U.S. history, occurred in 1862, just 75 miles south of Minneapolis, in Mankato, Minnesota, where 38 Dakota men were hanged in public on a huge scaffold. Like most of the Twin Cities, the Walker’s 19-acre campus occupies Dakota land, a fact that was overlooked when the museum selected Scaffold for installation. The negative response to the work was visceral and swift. Its appearance at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden was the first time it was exhibited in the U.S.