I had the fantastic opportunity to curate a case at the Minneapolis Institute of Art for their revamped Native galleries to coincide with their new Native women artist exhibition in the special galleries. It wasn’t too hard for me to decide to go with Dakota and Lakota artwork featuring American flags, because it’s such a complicated symbol but also a very relevant issue in today’s world with so many Americans being against “illegal immigration”.

This is the essay I wrote for the label.

Pieces in the curated cases

They Say Minnesota Nice (Minnesota Nice Oyakepelo), 1995 – Wanbli Koyake
Baby bonnet
, 1991 – Todd Yellow Cloud Augusta
Pair of child’s moccasins
, c. 1890
Pair of Moccasins, c. 1890
Pow Wow, Mandaree, North Dakota, 1990 – Greta Pratt
Belt Buckle, 1990 – Leo Arrowite
Akicita Wasté (Good Soldier), 1991 – Martin Red Bear

The use of the American flag by the Dakhóta and Lakȟóta people of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (“Seven Council Fires”, as we are collectively known) shows a conscious thoughtfulness of our ongoing relationship with the United States: at times a political symbol, at other times used to protect our sovereignty and traditions.


Belt Bucket by Leo Arrowite and Pow Wow print by Greta Pratt

Belt Bucket by Leo Arrowite and Pow Wow print by Greta Pratt

Stars and Stripes were already existing artistic and religious symbols to us, so it’s quite possible my ancestors considered the flag equally wakháŋ (having a mysterious power) when it was first gifted to us in the 1790s. Heȟáka Sápa (Black Elk) spoke that the morning star is the light leading us out of the darkness, representing knowledge and wisdom. I can imagine my ancestors wondering if these mysterious foreigners who also used stars to introduce themselves—they must want to walk the right path, right?

Baby Bonnet and They Say Minnesota Nice (Minnesota Nice Oyakepelo)

Baby Bonnet by Todd Yellow Cloud Augusta and They Say Minnesota Nice (Minnesota Nice Oyakepelo) by Wanbli Koyake

Through art, we have a long-existing tradition of depicting our military accomplishments and the respect for sacred items carried or worn into battle, even by our adversaries. In the 1860s the first U.S. flag imagery began to appear in our artwork as the policy towards us changed. Within Minnesota, the hostilities between us and the government exploded with the Dakhóta War of 1862. This resulted in the creation of a concentration camp of 1,600 captured Dakhóta people at Fort Snelling and the hanging of 38 Dakhóta men.

Exiled from Minnesota, my people were forced onto reservations and our ceremonies were outlawed as assimilation policies were enacted. However, under the disguise of celebrating the 4th of July, we would bead clothing and other items meant for our own ceremonies with U.S. flags. That “patriotic” usage appeared to say to outsiders, “the Indians are assimilating, see?” This coded use of the flag is how some of the ceremonies managed to survive.

Akicita Wasté (Good Soldier), 1991 Martin Red Bear

Akicita Wasté (Good Soldier), 1991
Martin Red Bear

At those early July 4th celebrations on the reservations, we would fly the U.S. flag and sing a flag song in Dakhóta that honored warriors and their accomplishments against the American military. At today’s powwows, we still continue that tradition of flying the American flag and singing a flag song to honor today’s military veterans who have fought for our homelands. Thousands of Native people fought in World War I (1914-1918) without any obligation to do so—the U.S. didn’t grant Native people citizenship until 1924. In World War II (1939-1945) we used our languages as code talkers to relay secret messages the Nazis couldn’t decipher. It’s a fact we join the armed forces in greater numbers per capita than any other ethnic group.


The meaning and use of the U.S. flag has changed many times for my people all the while welcoming immigrants to these lands already long-inhabited by Indigenous people. Does it still represent freedom and democracy to new immigrants? Perhaps that depends on what side of the wall today’s immigrants are on.

Marlena Myles, artist
Sisíthuŋwaŋ & Waȟpéthuŋwaŋ of the Spirit Lake Dakhóta Tribe

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