RED WING -- During the autumn of 2018 Red Wing city leaders asked themselves: what would Barn Bluff -- He Mni Can (ȞEMNÍČHAŊ) in Dakota -- say if it could speak? Artist Marlena Myles was brought in to try to answer that question.

On Monday, Dec. 9, Special Projects Manager Brian Peterson presented the City Council with the completed project.

Myles, based in St. Paul, has been creating digital art for about 20 years. She began to teach herself the skill as a young teenager when the technology was new and limited in what it could do. Myles’ digital art skills are on full display in this project.

Marlena Myles is a self-taught Native American artist based in St. Paul. Her bio states that "she enjoys using her artwork to teach Minnesotans of all backgrounds the indigenous history of the place we call home." Recently, Myles was selected to create a place-making piece about Barn Bluff/ Ȟemníčhaŋ (He Mni Can). Photo provided by Myles.
Marlena Myles is a self-taught Native American artist based in St. Paul. Her bio states that "she enjoys using her artwork to teach Minnesotans of all backgrounds the indigenous history of the place we call home." Recently, Myles was selected to create a place-making piece about Barn Bluff/ Ȟemníčhaŋ (He Mni Can). Photo provided by Myles.

One of the pieces, "Siŋtéȟda, Protector of Medicines," is a collage of shapes, patterns, lines and colors that, when put together, create a snake that looks both robotic and alive. For this piece, along with the other artworks that comprise the series, Myles includes a description of the piece and its significance. The rattlesnake, for example, represents the animal and plant life that are on the bluff. Myles’ description goes on to explain:

“There are also burial mounds located atop the bluff, which are believed by Dakota and Ho-Chunk peoples to be protected by the Rattlesnake: Siŋtéȟda protects both the ancient burial mounds and sacred medicine plants that are located on the bluffs along the Wakpá Tháŋka (Mississippi River); thus, there are many burial mounds in the shape of rattlesnakes located in the region, including just a few miles outside of Red Wing near Spring Creek.”

SIŊTÉHDA (rattlesnake) is believed to be the protector of medicine plants and ancient burial mounds by Dakota and Ho-Chunk peoples. Image by Marlena Myles.
SIŊTÉHDA (rattlesnake) is believed to be the protector of medicine plants and ancient burial mounds by Dakota and Ho-Chunk peoples. Image by Marlena Myles.

The rattlesnake is one of many animals that Myles has created. She has a series of animal spirits (everything from bumblebees to otters to bears) that, like the snake, are made up of numerous intricate pieces. Myles explained to the Republican Eagle that she keeps a digital collection of shapes and patterns that she designs. Then, when she sits down to create a new animal spirit, Myles is able to use pieces that she has already created, resulting in a much faster creation process than if she designed the entire piece from scratch.

The land speaks

This portion of the project is a map of Prairie Island to Red Wing and then Winona. “It features traditional and ancient locations as well as modern places in the Dakota language,” explained Myles on her website. The map includes local rivers and Lake Pepin, an Amtrak train on the railroad tracks, and many other locations with their Dakota names.

A free 8 ½-by-11-inch print of this map is available on the project’s website: marlenamyl.es/2019/10/if-this-bluff-could-talk.. Viewers also are able to hear the pronunciation of the Dakota words.

Paper cutting

Myles created a collection of intricate paper cuttings for this project. Her artist statement explains:

“Dakota people have their own unique style of floral art, which is represented in these pieces. In Scandinavia, they typically hang cuttings in their windows to celebrate the light during long dark winters. Meanwhile, Dakota women used their cuttings to sew on their clothes, creating the patterns for quillwork, beadwork and ribbonwork.”

Coloring book

Myles has thought about creating a coloring book or coloring sheets for a couple of years now. She explained that she likes being able to talk with students and give teachers materials to help teach about their local communities. Myles decided to begin creating a coloring book while doing research for the bluff project.

Henry David Thoreau stopped in Red Wing during his monthlong trip to the Midwest in 1861. While doing research for this project, Myles discovered Thoreau’s journal writings about the beauty of Tháŋka Bdé (Lake Pepin) and the plants that he saw in Minnesota.

“This coloring book of Dakota plants of Ȟemníčhaŋ is inspired by (Thoreau’s) writings which I have illustrated using the floral artistic-style of Dakota people to create something that together combines our connections to Nature,” explained Myles.

Eight coloring sheets can be printed from the website. They include information about the plants and Thoreau’s journey and writings.

Currently, Myles is working on expanding these drawings into a coloring book that includes other plants important to the Dakota people.

Myles wrote a blog post to accompany this series and what she worked to do through her art for “If This Bluff Could Talk.” She explained:

“I focused on engaging the community in telling a variety of stories about Red Wing’s powerful and iconic natural landmark: Ȟemníčhaŋ (He Mni Can) / Barn Bluff. To the Dakota people, the bluff is one of the most sacred places in the world. For recent western culture, it holds decades of newer memories and is key to the identity of Red Wing.”

To see the completed "If this Bluff Could Talk" project, visit: marlenamyl.es/2019/10/if-this-bluff-could-talk.