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Native statement: Mural nearing completion in downtown Duluth an image of protest

A mural of a Native American woman on the side of the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center at the American Indian Community Housing Organization dominates the streetscape on West Second Street in Duluth on Friday evening. The mural was created by artists Votan Ik and Derek Brown. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 5
Artist Votan Ik puts finishing touches on a mural in downtown Duluth on Friday. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 5
A mural of a Native American woman is nearing completion on the side of the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center at the American Indian Community Housing Organization on West Second Street in Duluth on Friday evening. The mural was created by artists Votan Ik and Derek Brown. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 5
Artist Votan Ik applies paint to a mural of a Native American woman he is creating at the American Indian Community Housing Organization on West Second Street in downtown Duluth on Friday. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)4 / 5
Artists Votan Ik (left) and Derek Brown stand with a mural of a Native American woman they are creating on the side of the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center at the American Indian Community Housing Organization in downtown Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)5 / 5

With only a few details left to paint on Friday afternoon, a jingle dress dancer looked out onto West Second Street in downtown Duluth from a mural painted on a wall high above.

The mural has been taking shape during the past month on an exterior wall of the American Indian Community Housing Organization's building in downtown Duluth.

Moira Villiard, arts and cultural program coordinator at AICHO, said there is a lack of Native American representation in the visual spaces of the city and with the new mural, there's no denying their presence.

The mural, which was funded through a grant AICHO received from Enterprise Community Partners, establishes "the indigenous voice as something that's here and a part of the community and incorporates it into the landscape of Duluth," Villiard said. "For so long, it's just been really under the surface, and when it's not visible, it's really easy for that voice to continuously get lost."

The mural is the artwork of Votan Ik, a Mayan from Los Angeles, and his assistant Derek Brown, a member of the Diné tribe in Arizona, and was completed in partnership with Honor the Earth.

The mural represents several different images — a water protector, Native American women in general, and missing and murdered indigenous women, said Ik, who also has an art business called Nsrgnts. Ik notes in his artist's statement that the mural is intended to put the issue of oil on a large platform, as well as advocate for renewable energy, education and empowerment.

When Native Americans protect their sacred sites, defend the land and protect their traditional way of life, they "usually suffer attacks," Ik said.

"But we felt that doing a mural of art is also a form of protest, but no one gets arrested, no one gets rubber bullets, tear gas. We thought this would be an effective way to convey a message," he said.

The issues of the protest against the Dakota Access oil pipeline near North Dakota's Standing Rock Reservation, and missing and murdered Native American women, are connected — but the protest didn't address the women, who are represented in the mural with the red jingle dress, Ik said.

When he visited family in North Dakota, he saw one of the "man camps" that have sprung up because of the Bakken oil field. His family "started explaining to me how some of the women there were being snatched off the reservation and disappeared and raped," he said. "That was the first I heard about it, and that was before Standing Rock, so when I got to Standing Rock, I was still piecing things together."

He said he fully understood when he heard stories of Native American women directly affected by abuse when he arrived in Duluth.

"It's one thing to hear it, a different thing to experience it because we experience it as a group, collectively — like I fully understand how important this is. We've had many people come and almost with tears in their eyes, so thankful for addressing the issue," he said.

It was also important to represent women in the mural because of the policies and views expressed by the administration of President Donald Trump, Ik said. He added, "We felt that women have been or were disrespected by the commander in chief, the person who is supposed to represent the country and the people, so we felt like we also needed to address that."

In the mural, the jingle dress dancer's face is partially covered by a bandana. Ik said he felt strongly about using a bandana in the mural because with it, she can be any woman.

The bandana also is a reference to the Zapatista movement in Mexico, he said, in which Mayans rose up in 1994 against the Mexican government. They opposed globalization — including the North American Free Trade Agreement — that threatened indigenous communities' land rights and way of life.

The Zapatistas wore bandanas and ski masks, and were labeled by the Mexican government and some media as cowards because they were "hiding" behind the masks, Ik said.

The Zapatistas responded that the individuals behind the masks didn't matter, but rather, what mattered was that there were humans behind the masks, he said. The message behind the bandana is "it's not me as an individual that will take credit for what is happening here, but it's us as human beings collectively coming together to change what is happening to us," Ik said. "In a way, I felt that it reflected tradition as indigenous people to where you're being considerate about your community and not just yourself."

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