Centering Justice: Indigenous Artists' Perspectives on Public Art

S'akowin, digital montage

How do monumental artworks and other public infrastructure contribute to Indigenous peoples’ ongoing invisibility in the public sphere? How can art in public space address institutional racism and challenge colonial mechanisms that persist in governing our societal systems? What must shift so that Indigenous artists have equal access to public art opportunities?

Our society and world have shifted in unprecedented ways this year, bringing us not only a pandemic, but also a reckoning on institutional racism in America. Monuments to colonial and Confederate symbols have been removed and come under scrutiny while critical perspectives on artwork in public spaces have become urgent. This year is also the 400th anniversary of the landing of English separatists at Patuxet—known today as Plymouth, Massachusetts—where festivities lauding the American colonial project are underway.

Recognizing that celebrations of colonization marginalize Indigenous people and minimize the realities for generations of people affected by genocide, slavery, and ethnic cleansing, we are presenting Centering Justice: Indigenous Artists’ Perspectives on Public Art. This virtual symposium aims to provide a critical counterpoint to these activities and create pathways for a strong Indigenous presence in public spaces that continue to exclude Native American peoples on their own land.

On September 22, 23, and 24 the Centering Justice project, a collaboration with the New England Foundation for the Arts Public Art team hosted Indigenous artists and cultural practitioners from local, regional, and national tribal communities who are working across a range of art forms. They came together as thought leaders to present their visions for how art in public space can generate momentum to increase intercultural understanding, build community, and bring about vital transformational change.

In addition to the two-day symposium, a pre-symposium discussion, co-hosted by NEFA and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) as a part of the Public Art, Public Memory discussion series. Public Art, Public Memory explores the role that planners, artists, and government staff can play in promoting more just and inclusive public spaces through public art and community history. 

Indigenous artists’ interventions into the practice of public art contributes powerfully to the process of healing colonized peoples and places. Considerations that are embedded in notions of public space within our settler-colonial society—such as the erasure of Indigenous peoples and histories and the supplanting of Western doctrines over Indigenous cultures—influence how the work is understood and received. The symposium will examine these issues and explore how Indigenous artists overcome the barriers to bringing forth their multidimensional perspectives in the public realm to communicate our deep relationships to each other and the world around us.

View all the panels here.




Confronting Colonial Myths in Boston's Public Space

During this virtual panel series, Indigenous leaders, artists and allies spoke about their work in the public realm, and addressed how public symbols perpetuating colonial myths affect the lives of Indigenous people in the city, contributing to the public health emergency of racism. It was live streamed through the Mayor's Office of Arts & Culture Boston Facebook page.


Facilitated by Erin Genia, Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, Artist-in-Residence, City of Boston

Part 1, July 21st

Speakers: Mahtowin Munro, Lakota, Co-leader of United American Indians of New England and lead organizer for IndigenousPeoplesDayMA.org; Lilly E. Manycolors, mixed Choctaw, interdisciplinary artist and scholar class; Jean-Luc Pierite, Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, President of the Board, North American Indian Center of Boston

Part 2, July 28th

Speakers: Elizabeth Solomon, member of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag,  Director of Administration in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health; Pierre Belanger, Ghazal Jafari and Pablo Escudero of OPEN SYSTEMS;  Heather Leavell, co-founder of Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples Day, museum director and curator in the Boston area; Dr. Darlene Flores, member of the Higuayagua Taino of the Caribbean Tribe, owner, Karaya Wellness Clinic in Brookline. 

Part 3, August 4th

Speakers: Jenny Oliver, member of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapag, artist and educator; Kristen Wyman, Nipmuc, co-founder of Eastern Woodlands Rematriation (EWR).


State Seal of Massachusetts, with me in it

Massachusetts state seal, as a profile pic, "By the sword we week peace, but peace only under liberty" state motto, in Latin.

I put myself in there because I live here. Any way you look at this seal, it's terrible. Time to change the seal and all symbols glorifying colonization.


Canupa Iŋyan: Falling Star Woman

 6.5mm x 11.5 mm cylinder carved from canupa iŋyan/ pipestone/ catlinite
photo by Sam Genia

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, and information about the entire MIT payload is located here.
detail of Falling Star Woman painting


Colonial Legacy: Uncontrolled Burn

Colonial Legacy: Uncontrolled Burn
pastel on paper
9" x 12"

The work depicts a wild forest fire from above. The increasing number and severity of forest fires stems from the colonial legacy of destroying earth-based ways of knowing that are carried by Indigenous peoples. One of these ways of knowing is a centuries-old practice of stewarding landscapes through a variety of methods that include controlled burns to manage forests. The loss of Indigenous peoples practicing these methods over widespread areas, accompanied by a prevalent view that the natural world is a set of natural resources meant for human and industrial consumption alone inevitably leads to uncontrolled wild fires and eventually, ecosystemic collapse.



My first solo exhibition, Okoŋwaŋžidaŋ is at the Urbano Project. The exhibition opening was on October 24th. My latest work on view, include paintings, sculptures, textiles, a video projection of Earthling and an installation of sound vessels.  This solo show is one aspect of my artist residency at Urbano, working with youth artists.

For more information about the show and the residency, check out this news coverage from my alma mater MIT Art Culture and Technology program, Broadway World, Art Fix Daily and Jamaica Plains News.

The show was also reviewed by Boston Globe arts journalist Cait McQuaid, in the article "At Urbano Project, artist Erin Genia ties together 'everything in the universe.'"


Unseen Dimensions of Public Space

Anpa O Wicahnpi: Dakota Pride Banner
Seattle Center, 2017 by Erin Genia
My new article, "Unseen Dimensions of Public Space: Disrupting Colonial Narratives," is published in the Boston Art Review Issue 04 this fall. It discusses the meanings of public space in the United States settler colonial society, and how the concept largely excludes Indigenous people and the ways public land was obtained.

The article references "Monuments in Perspective," the workshop I gave this past spring for "Experiments in Pedagogy," a series of curricular events marking the 150th anniversary of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. The workshop consisted of regional site visits to places of cultural and historic significance to the Wampanoag, Nipmuc, Massachusett and Ponkapoag people. Through the wisdom and words of Jonathan James-Perry (Aquinnah Wampanoag) and Jean-Luc Pierite (Tunica-Biloxi), students and community members learned about the history and character of the land, as well as critical approaches for respecting it in their work as artists, designers, urban planners and architects.

The article also discusses the work of two artists working in the public sphere whom I admire a great deal, Lillian Pitt (Warm Springs/ Wasco) and Toma Villa (Yakama). The Confluence Project, a series of public art sites and interventions along the Columbia river, led by Maya Lin, features their compelling art pieces and promotes the work and voices of Indigenous people of the area.

My work, Anpa O Wicahnpi/ Morningstar - Dakota Pride Banner, which celebrated diversity and the urban Indian experience at Seattle Center from 2017-2018, also makes an appearance in the article. I am proud to be one of six writers that the public arts organization Now +There supported for this publication.


Wokiksuye: The Politics of Memory in Indigenous Art, Monuments, and Public Space

This year, I have fulfilled the requirements of my Masters degree program in Art, Culture and Technology, at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. One of the requirements was to produce a thesis. Here is my thesis abstract:

The powers of creativity and symbolism that art draws upon have been used in the public realm to uplift and also to oppress. Within this context, art, from Indigenous perspectives, can positively influence the collective imaginations and wokiksuye (memory) of society. Indigenous intervention into the practice of public art can powerfully contribute to the process of decolonization and Indigenization in America. Considerations embedded in notions of public space within a settler colonial society, such as the attempted erasure of Indigenous peoples and histories, and the supplanting of Western doctrines over Indigenous cultures, influence the production and reception of this work. Erin Genia, a Dakota artist, analyzes the politics of memory in public space by scrutinizing monuments celebrating the American colonial project and describes the impacts of Western imperialism on Indigenous arts and cultures. By presenting her own artwork, as well as that of prominent Indigenous artists working in the public sphere, she shows how understandings of place and relationship underpin Dakota/Indigenous methods, and argues that public art is an arena where an evolution of thought and practice in approaches to the world can come to fruition.

I created the image above for the 2019 SA+P Thesis show. You can see information about this thesis, and other students theses here.

You can read more about my graduate work, including my thesis, here.