49 Minutes of Fame Artist Profile: Marlena Myles

Marlena Myles teaches people about Indigenous history through art, records stories in visual and written works.

Self-taught Dakota artist Marlena Myles has found her purpose in creating designs that educate people about Indigenous history.

Growing up in the Twin Cities, Myles thought art was just a hobby. She says she didn’t see serious career possibilities in the field until she reached adulthood and started learning more about Dakota history in Minnesota, something she wasn’t taught much about in school.

Through art, Myles says she seeks to ensure that future generations understand Native culture.

“I started creating a lot of artwork that has either historical meanings or teaches about the Dakota perspective of Minnesota,” she says, “so that everybody in Minnesota can learn more about who we are from a Dakota person.”

Healing through art

An experienced animator, Myles has developed a public art installation called "Dakota Spirit Walk," an augmented-reality experience that will guide people through the sacred lands at Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and Indian Mounds Regional Park in downtown St. Paul. The installation will launch later this year in collaboration with the Moving Museum of Virtual Art, an app-based museum project.

Myles says the Dakota Spirit Walk will be a GPS-based experience similar in concept to Pokémon Go. Through the app, people can learn from Dakota spirits who will teach about the significance of the land.

“I think it’s a fun way to tell these stories,” Myles says. “Our stories are there. Native people see and understand them, but I think using this technology shows Native presence to other people.”

For Myles, the Dakota Spirit Walk is a way to share about her tribe’s history in the area. During the 1850s, the U.S. government forced Indigenous people off their lands, destroyed burial mounds and built a railroad over the sacred ground in the process of establishing the Twin Cities. While that period is dark and painful for her people, Myles says the city is seeking to rectify the past by restoring the area back to a Native prairie.

She says she hopes the installation will bring a better understanding of how people can be good stewards of the land.

“Now people can understand, too, that we can restore, fix and heal from the past,” Myles says. “I feel like that’s a great area to see that in person.”

Spreading Indigenous culture

In her work, Myles says she gains inspiration from international designs, art deco and art nouveau-style pieces. She enjoys creating original Dakota fabric patterns, murals and animations influenced by other art styles.

“I like to put Dakota designs where people don’t expect Native people to be because we should be everywhere,” Myles says. “We shouldn’t have to be just at a Native art market or in a Native museum.”

A featured artist in 49 Minutes of Fame, Myles shared her piece “Uŋktómi and the Copyrights to the Dakota/Lakota Language” at the National Willa Cather Center’s Red Cloud Opera House exhibit from November 5 to December 14. The vector illustration portrays Uŋktómi, the trickster spirit in Dakota/Lakota culture who invented language and taught it to the animals.

In the piece, Uŋktómi is holding a cell phone with a language app that says “No Rights Deserved” in Lakota. Myles says this illustration is a commentary on how outside organizations are paying tribal elders to share their ancestral stories, copyrighting Indigenous languages and then preventing Native people from using their own knowledge without paying for it.

“Basically, they’re claiming to own our stories,” Myles says. “It’s like a trickster way of having our language stolen from us. Uŋktómi is always playing those kind of tricks, so it’s using our traditional ways of talking about these kind of issues, but in a contemporary way.”

Honoring Native language

To help protect Indigenous languages, Myles has started her own Dakota publishing company, Wiyounkihipi (We Are Capable) Productions as a platform to educate and honor the culture, language and history of Dakota people. Using her experience in creating children’s books for Lerner Publishing Group and the Minnesota Historical Society, she is working to develop children’s literature inspired by Dakota stories.

In the coming months, Myles says she plans to release three children’s books on subjects such as poetry and photography. She is working with Dakota and Lakota contributors, many of whom are in college, to compile their written and visual works in educational stories for children.

“I really wanted to offer their perspectives as a contemporary Native person who’s holding on to our traditions in new ways,” Myles says. “I just wanted to create books that show us in the present rather than living in the past.”

Contemporary works

As a pop artist, Myles says she finds meaning from demonstrating how Native traditions continue to adapt to modern times.

She says art has impacted her life by allowing her to share about Dakota culture.

“It’s given me a platform to elevate Dakota people and show the modern ways that our stories can be told,” Myles says. “I’ve learned that I’m a pretty powerful person when I put my thoughts and energy into a work. You might feel like you’re just one person, but you can create pieces that can impact your whole community and open people’s eyes to Indigenous stories.”

About Marlena Myles

Marlena Myles is a self-taught Native American (Spirit Lake Dakota) artist located in St. Paul, Minnesota. She has gained recognition as being one of the few Dakota women creating digital art including fabric patterns, animations and illustrations bringing modernity to Indigenous history, languages and oral traditions. Growing up on her traditional Dakota homelands in the Twin Cities, Myles enjoys using her artwork to teach Minnesotans of all backgrounds about the state’s Indigenous history. Her professional work includes children’s books, fabrics, animations and fine art in galleries such as the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Museum of Russian Art, Red Cloud Heritage Center and the Minnesota Museum of American Art. In 2021, Myles opened her own Dakota publishing company called Wíyouŋkihipi (We Are Capable) Productions as a platform to educate and honor the culture, language and history of Dakota people.

Learn more about Marlena Myles and her art at her website, on Facebook, and Instagram.

Learn more about 49 Minutes of Fame: An Exhibition of Native Pop Art which was installed at the Red Cloud Opera House Gallery from November 5-December 14, 2021 • For a list of other 49 Minutes of Fame artist profiles on this website, click here • You can also view the digital gallery here.

We are grateful to freelance writer Juli Oberlander for her artist biographies and public relations efforts for this exhibit.