Interview with Mona Smith by Meher Khan
Mona Smith’s in-progress piece, displayed at the M Museum, is an entryway into the space and will encourage visitors to consider their place in the space as well as the Dakota language. Through her work, we learn about Mona’s relationship with the Dakota language and her heritage and what questions both have brought up for her as she creates art. We also get insight into the concepts of “mitakuye owasin,” “all my relations” in Dakota, and how that ties into a “network of mutuality.”
How do you feel your work is in connection with the Wakpa Triennial theme: Network of Mutuality? How are we related? How do we overcome divisions? How can art help us to consider our mutuality with each other so that everyone thrives? Who is included in our networks of mutuality? How can art help us to envision new futures?
Mitakuye owasin, all my relations. Dakota beliefs teach us that all beings are related. “All beings” includes water, animals, the sky, the earth, language, dreams. All connected. All interrelated. All affecting the others. The recognition of this idea dissolves divisions. Art can assist in expressing mitakuye owasin.
Tell me about your piece for the Wakpa Triennial event?
The major pieces will be pieces of interviews that I’m doing, conversations I’m having with Juanita Espinosa and Jewell Arcoren, who are two old friends of mine, Juanita is seminal in Native art history in the Metro and all over the country, and Jewell Arcoren has also worked in art a long time. She and I worked together in my business, Allies: media/art. She is now the Executive Director of Wicoie Nandagikendan a language immersion preschool, Dakota and Ojibwe languages. We are talking together in free-ranging conversations about water, the river. One of the things that interests me was I inspired by something I read on how much the river has been engineered. It made me take a look at how Native women have been engineered. We’re meeting again on Monday to record some more. “What do we look like unengineered? What are we going to be like?” It’ll be fun. The white way is everything’s about property. Everything is owned. The fact is, although people talk about Dakota owning this land. We don’t own this land. We didn’t have ownership; we still don’t, but we have the longest relationship with this land, with this river. That’s what being Dakota is: being related. We’re talking with each other – about what does it mean to be related to the river as opposed to turning it into something that makes you money.
Some of the other pieces that are being gathered are historical photos of the engineering of the river, some graphic maps and the like. I want those on the walls, possibly with words over them, Dakota or not. We’ll hear Jewell and Juanita coming from different places in the room again, depending on the technical abilities of the joint. Initially I said as you walk into the space, the river will be projected on the floor. I’m not sure we can do that, but I’ve got the footage.
What does “engineering” mean to you in the context of your work, when you think of how the river is engineered versus how Dakota women are engineered?
The river has had channels cut into it. Channels filled up, locks and dams put in, and sacred islands blown up. I call all of those things engineering. When I emailed Jewell and Juanita, to think about, “Okay, the river has been engineered. How have we been engineered? How are you engineered?” Juanita’s answer was, “I don’t have my language.” That was a huge, immediate response. The language is so key because the river has its way of wanting to flow, and the engineering has changed that – maybe irreparably. Our being based in the English language shapes how we think, how we flow.
There are words in Dakota that aren’t in English, and I remember when I was starting to learn the language at the U (of M), because that’s what your modern, mixed blood Dakota, those who weren’t raised on rez (reservation) do. I said to my teacher, “Having been raised a good Catholic girl in a small white Minnesota town, how do I say ‘I’m sorry?’” She just looked at me and said, ‘We don’t say, ‘I’m sorry.’ We don’t think about doing things maliciously, and we know people make mistakes.’ That made a huge impact on me in terms of, “I’m sorry” being one of the first sentences that would ever come out of my mouth. That’s a part of engineering – that I’m endlessly apologetic.
The universities like to talk about being colonized – well, everybody likes to talk about that now – but another way to put that would be is engineered.
Can you tell me about your experience learning the Dakota language later in life/not as your first language?
My mother was orphaned at age eight, and at age six, she was sent to a mission school. She was colonized from the get-go, engineered from the get-go – to the point that when I was about 18 and was talking about some Dakota tradition, she said, “You don’t believe all that stuff, do you?” Because she was a boarding school survivor, she would sing me a Dakota lullaby when I was a kid, and she had no idea what the words were, but her mother obviously sang it to her. I’ve thought about my first Dakota word, and I think the first Dakota word she taught me was wasicun, which refers to a white person.
When I was learning the language, after visiting my mom for the weekend, I went back on Monday morning and said to my teacher, “My mom wants me to ask you, ‘What does hecunsni mean?’” My teacher laughed and said, “We know a lot about your mom as a little girl now.” It means “Don’t do that.” My diving into the language happened when I was in college at the U. Then it went away because I wasn’t immersed with people speaking the language, so that’s a hole in my heart.
Anything else you’d like to share with everyone?
I’m glad that there’s this public art show that includes honoring the river, because if there’s anything I want people to know it’s that they’re living and working on Dakota land, and there are things to learn from the Dakota people that will be of benefit to all and sundry. Mitakuye Oyasin means “all my relations.” It doesn’t just mean two-leggeds holding their hands around the campfire. It means all the animals, the water, the trees, the ideas, the sky, and if we approach all of those things as relatives, as members of our family, the world changes, so I’m grateful for Wakpa Triennial.
The piece ends with Juanita talking about the “magic” of running water and how she sees that magic as “to our detriment.” Something to consider.
Meher Khan has been working in communications, marketing, and graphic design in the Twin Cities for over 13 years. She uses her education and training to tell multifaceted stories, through design and writing, for nonprofit organizations, higher education, and individual clients. She gravitates toward work supporting marginalized communities and community-driven improvements for all people. Meher is currently working toward her Master of Fine Art at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, with a focus on printmaking techniques and illustration in her studio practice. She enjoys hearing other artists speak about their work and having conversations to understand their motivations, and is investing time in making art writing part of her career.