3/04/2020

Canupa Iŋyan: Falling Star Woman

 6.5mm x 11.5 mm cylinder carved from canupa iŋyan/ pipestone/ catlinite

Canupa Iŋyan: Falling Star Woman is a piece made from canupa inyan/ pipestone/ catlinite stone. I created this piece for the "Earthlings: Open Call for Artworks in Low Earth Orbit" project of the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative. The piece will be included, as one of nine art works, in a unit called Sojourner 2020 that will orbit the earth on the International Space Station this year. Sojourner 2020 will be launched on March 6, 2020, from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida on the Space X Falcon 9 CRS-20.

For info about the launch, and to watch it live, click here.

Carved from the traditional Dakota material of canupa iŋyan/ pipestone, Canupa Iŋyan: Falling Star Woman depicts the legend of a star gazing young woman who travels to space, marries a star person and gives birth to a star child. Over time, she misses her family, friends, and her work as a plant medicine healer. She decides to leave her home in the stars and return to her people on earth. Using the thread of her woven dress as a rope, she climbs down from the stars. However, the thread is not long enough. She lets go and tumbles down to earth as a wakaŋwohpa/ falling star.

Canupa Iŋyan: Falling Star Woman, front

There are varying versions of this story within oral tradition, each possessing different elements and outcomes for Falling Star Woman. In this piece, I chose the elements that are most prominent in my recollection, in order to recreate her voyage into space, and her path falling back down to earth's gravity field.

Canupa Iŋyan: Falling Star Woman, rear

The carving shows the moment she is transformed into a falling star and becomes Wicahnpi Hinhpayawin/ Falling Star Woman. Her face appears on one side of the cylinder and her hair flows into the shape of an eight-pointed star on the other end. On her body, I carved a Dakota floral pattern to show the strong pull she felt to resume her duties to her people as a plant medicine healer, and the relevance of the stars to planting seasons.

detail of Dakota floral pattern on shaft

This piece is a extension of my ongoing project: "Canupa Iŋyan: carvings of my ancestors," in which I work with pipestone and study its history and cultural forms. This stone comes from the quarry located on Dakota homelands where people of many tribes historically came together to dig stone for their pipes. Today, due to colonization, the quarry is under the jurisdiction of the United States, and it is known as Pipestone National Monument, in Minnesota.

pipestone carving of Wicahnpi Hinhpayawin, through a lens

This project has led me to museum collections around the US, where I have viewed, studied, documented, and spent time with ancestral Dakota canupa iŋyan pieces. According to Dakota philosophy, the historical pieces residing in museums are considered to be ancestors themselves, possessing a life of their own. Likewise, this stone is a vibrant form of life with much cultural significance.

Falling Star Woman in the Mesosphere, acrylic on canvas, 42"x 30"

Canupa iŋyan is a sacred material to Dakota people for many reasons, and it is my goal to send this piece into orbit around the earth as a symbolic prayer for peace and for the strengthening of Indigenous peoples all over the globe, as well as the resurgence of Indigenous knowledge and ways in this time of global crisis. Canupa Iŋyan: Falling Star Woman was prepared for this task through protocols of working with this stone. When it returns back to earth after its time in the thermosphere, I will observe and document any changes in the work, and then honor its journey through ceremony.

Piece with hand for scale

The piece was made to fit into the Sojourner 2020 capsule, it measures  6.5 mm x 11.5 mm, and weighs only 0.86g. It is the smallest piece I have ever done, smaller than my fingernail, about the size of a pill. Sojourner 2020 is a unit built to hold art work investigations in a small space, it consists of three layers, the first that remains still in weightlessness, the second and third that rotate at the speed of the moon and Mars, respectively. Falling Star Woman is on the first layer and will experience zero gravity for the duration of her time on the ISS.

Sojourner 2020, photo courtesy Xin Liu


Canupa Iŋyan: Falling Star Woman is one of nine projects by international artists included on the International Space Station payload. Featured artists are:

Luis Guzman, “bioarchitectures,” Chile
Xin Liu, Lucia Monge, “Unearthing the Futures,” China & Peru
Levi Cai & Andrea Ling, “Abiogenetic Triptych,” USA, Canada
Kathleen Kohl, “Memory Chain: A Pas de Deux of Artifacts,” USA
Henry Tan, “Pearl of Lunar,” Thai
Janet Biggs, “Finding Equilibrium,” USA
Masahito Ono, “Nothing, Something, Everything,” Japan
Adriana Knouf, “TX-1,” USA
Erin Genia, “Canupa Inyan: Falling Star Woman,” American, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate



More information about Sojourner 2020 is on the MIT Media Lab website.

detail of Falling Star Woman painting