In South Dakota, on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation, something magical is taking root. Learn how this community is connecting and growing through an artist-in-residence program despite never having met their resident artist in person.
The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered the ways that we connect, gather together, and create community. Explore how members of the Arts Midwest community like the Sissteon Arts Council, a We the Many grantee, are reshaping their work to fit this moment in a three-part series spotlighting creativity and resilience.
Three Towns, One Residency
In the towns of Sisseton, Agency Village, and Veblen, located in the northeast corner of rural South Dakota on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation, excitement and pride are in the air. Virtual art workshops, public meetings, and one-on-one conversations are connecting community members. Local participants are learning new artistic skills. The seeds of collaboration and discovery are being cultivated, despite the continued presence of COVID-19.
This creative exchange of voices, cultures, and ideas is happening as part of We the Many, a new program founded by Arts Midwest that seeks to expand the understanding of what it means to be a Midwesterner. In its pilot year, the program is guiding communities through the process of creating and producing their own artistic residencies.
Typically, artist residencies provide artists with the opportunity to work away from their everyday environment and connect with a new community. But how do you host a residency during a pandemic when you can’t connect in person?
Creative Flexibility and No Fear
Alex Barreto Hathaway, courtesy of the artist
Sandi Jaspers, president of the Sisseton Arts Council, has been involved with the all-volunteer organization for 30 years. In a typical year, the Council hosts events such as concerts, children’s theater, art exhibits, and book discussions. “Of course, this year with COVID-19, everything is different,” says Jaspers. “The things we typically do, we aren’t. We had this opportunity to be part of We the Many with Arts Midwest, and it’s become our main focus.”
In summer 2020, the We the Many team in Sisseton selected Alex Barreto Hathaway, a Minneapolis-based Brazilian-American artist who was born in Puerto Rico, as their resident artist for this project. Even though he knew it would look different than anything he’s ever done, Hathaway was ready to take on the challenge.
Hathaway describes himself as an artist and educator that leans into playfulness, clown, mask and physical theatre, stories that celebrate the Latinx experience, and projects that partner with non-theatre groups. He also creates illustrations, writes tri-lingual folk songs, and sustains an ongoing project that serves artists, farmers, and grass-roots organizers in Puerto Rico.
“My first thought was I’m not afraid, and I’m not even nervous,” says Hathaway. “My whole life has been about being flexible, moving with the changes, seeing obstacles as opportunities to be resilient, to grow, to be better. When the pandemic started, I thought, this might actually be a great thing if we can harness it. Let’s create something unique to do right now.”
A Storytelling Tour
Initially, when the pandemic struck, community member Karie Geyer had some reservations. She’d been working on We the Many since its inception. “I was a little concerned and wondered if we could even do something like this in a pandemic because it involved people and relationships and gatherings and all that,” she says.
Hathaway had similar concerns as he began to think about how to shift things virtually, as residency work is often dependent on being physically present with people. “It’s about being there and picking up on the energy, the vibe, the language that’s used,” he explains. “You pick up on the rhythm and cadence and colloquialism. And yeah, it feels like something’s missing because I’m not there.”
However, Hathaway has still been able to help connections grow while working virtually. He is establishing long-lasting relationships through a “listening tour,” which has included calling nearly 30 people affiliated with the Sisseton Arts Council board and planning team. He began those calls with questions such as; What is the space, or place, or location where you feel the bravest? What are the spaces you avoid? What are the spaces of intersection?
Those questions gave him an unexpected view of the community, despite never having visited in person. “I got a sense of a virtual tour, like an imaginary storytelling tour. I’m glad I have that,” he explains.
Geyer thinks these kinds of virtual connections are working. “My fear has been wiped out. Because of technology and how there are other ways to do things, it’s just kept pushing us forward,” she says.
GIF: A welcome sign leading into town, the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation, and a mural by Nicholas Blaske and Alexis Monroe in downtown Sisseton, South Dakota. Videos: Matthew Keefe.
Taking Inspiration from the Land
From the start, Hathaway has thought of this project as a garden, both literally and metaphorically. “When I was doing the listening tour, I said I’m getting to know what is in the soil. What would grow here? Is the soil clay-based? Is it acidic? Does it have nitrogen? What would work here?” he asks.
As answers began to reveal each participant’s artistic strengths, he encouraged their curiosity. “There’s a lot of energy in visual art in this community, so let’s get a visual art workshop going,” he says when describing how he approached setting up community activities. “There’s a lot of energy in stories, so let’s get an interview workshop.” The We the Many residency began to take shape as Hathaway helped set up workshops featuring local resident artists.
One of these collaborating artists is Inkpa Mani. Currently teaching at the tribal school in Sisseton while simultaneously working on a Dakota language immersion book to help teach the language on the reservation, Mani was born in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, lived in his mother’s native Mexico until he was four, and then relocated to Wheaton, Minnesota. His father is Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota. “It’s pretty cool having this triad of perspectives, growing up Midwestern with mostly non-native and non-Hispanic peers,” says Mani.
As part of We The Many, Mani has been interviewing community members workshops and leading workshops on ledger drawing and natural pigments,. Ledger drawing is a Native American art form that captures stories through drawing or painting on paper or cloth. It’s another connection back to the story of the land and its ancestral peoples. Sisseton is home to the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Indian tribe, and approximately half of its population is Native American.
“For Dakota people, we truly have become part of this land because we know that we’ve been here for thousands of years,” says Mani. “Throughout that time, we have countless generations of people being born and buried on this land so that their bones have become the dust that settles all across this area. For the Dakota people, that’s the level of integration and importance of this land.”
Watercolor landscapes and ledger drawings from a workshop led by Inkpa Mani. Photos courtesy of Inkpa Mani.
Growing and Flourishing
Arts Midwest Senior Program Director Christy Dickinson (left) during a pre-COVID-19 community listening visit with Sisseton Arts Council Board Member Jane Rasmussen (right)
We The Many will continue through 2021, and Hathaway is excited about how it will keep on growing. “We got folks from Veblen, from Sisseton, and Agency Village, and they don’t even have to take their slippers off! They can just open up their computer and be in the same space with entire families. And they don’t have to drive. People are taking these virtual classes. There is a demand,” he says.
Karie Geyer agrees that the pandemic has shed a light on the demand for connection, even if it’s virtual. “The need for relationships has been accentuated even more. We may be gathering in different ways, but we are still making connections. Meeting and talking and seeing the process evolve is extremely energizing,” she says.
Sandi Jaspers is already looking ahead, wondering how the Sisseton Arts Council might continue to work with community members who have taken part in We The Many. “As an arts council board, we have always kind of done things by ourselves,” she notes. “This project is pulling in a lot of other people. I see the community growing. There’s this new shared relationship.”
Inkpa Mani is also looking towards the future. “How can we make this a legacy rather than an event?” he asks. The answer may be in continuing conversations. As a “story keeper” on the project, he’s been capturing community voices for the last few months. “We’re keeping the stories and finding ways that we can keep them alive. And we’re providing feed for new projects as the years go on.”
We the Many is a project of Arts Midwest with generous support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and in partnership with the Indiana Arts Commission, Iowa Arts Council, and South Dakota Arts Council. Arts Midwest provided Sisseton Arts Council an advisor to guide artist selection as well as a grant for planning and producing the residency.