Thanks to Southview Animal Hospital and Dakota County for their support.
When the Guthrie first returned after the pandemic for a performance of What the Constitution Means to Me, the audience received copies of the Constitution with a sticker that read, “You are on Native land.” West St. Paul’s Adrienne Zimiga-January designed that sticker and served on a committee that made it happen.
The play: What the Constitution Means to Me, described as “hilarious, hopeful, and achingly human,” is an argument about the Constitution and invites the audience into that debate. (It’s available to watch on Amazon Prime.)
What’s the issue? “When the Constitution was written, it had nothing to do with Native people,” said Zimiga-January, who is Oglala Lakota. Black people and women were left out as well, and not only left out, but also mistreated throughout history. “That hit home for a lot of us, because we had relatives—not ancestors—who were taken away from family and adopted, not knowing they were Native, and having to come back to find that out later in life.”
Understatement: “So we had a lot of feelings about this.”
Native American Perspective
For Native communities, the sins of history are not ancient wounds healed by the passage of time. They’re painfully fresh:
- Learning Lakota: “I remember talking to my unci (my grandma) about taking Lakota in college. And she started crying. I asked what’s wrong and she said, ‘We were smacked in the mouth if we talked Lakota. Now they teach it in college?’”
- Boarding schools: Part of Generation X, Zimiga-January is the first generation in her family that didn’t go through Indian boarding schools.
- Freedom: “We were just given the right to practice our religion—our spirituality, our culture—in 1978,” Zimiga-January said, referring to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Her grandparents were beaten for speaking the language and had their hair forcibly cut. “It was always a shock to them that they could do this again, in public.”
You Are on Native Land Logo
The Guthrie has a Native Advisory Council and the Native land acknowledgement is presented before performances. But in this case, they felt they needed to do something more. They connected with the play’s author, Heidi Schreck, who supported their efforts.
- It uses traditional colors and two symbols.
- The main symbol is a lodge with lightning bolts pointing down—as opposed to traditional Native artwork that points up—to signify that you are on Native land.
- The second symbol is the medicine cross, because “truth is medicine.”
What the Constitution means to Zimaga-January: “The Constitution was written by a group of men that look nothing like me and never could imagine what my concerns and my rights would be as an American in today’s society. … Other countries are continually rewriting and updating their constitutions to fit with the society it upholds and protects. Not us. We’re still holding on to a document written 235 years ago and it covered 13 states at that time. I would say some things have changed in 235 years, wouldn’t you?”
Spreading use: The Guthrie sells T-shirts, mugs, tote bags, and more with the logo. A neighborhood in Minneapolis wants to use it on street banners. Zimiga-January wants to create a website with more products and challenge other designers to create their own logos.
- Give back: “I have this strong urge that this particular artwork, whatever we put it on, it needs to always give back to the Native community wherever it’s being sold.”
- A full 100% of proceeds from the Guthrie’s sales go to the Ikidowin youth acting ensemble. Since February they’ve donated about $4,000.
- Zimiga-January also made a few flags to give to friends and family, and she flew one at her house. Unfortunately, someone stole her flag last year. They literally ripped the flag holder off her house. Rather than being upset, Zimga-January likes to imagine she’ll see it again one day, perhaps waving at a protest and she’ll know it went to a good home.
Land acknowledgements require action: “Some Natives feel it’s just words being said with no real meaning, no real acceptance, and no real action behind them. And others appreciate the fact that we’re even being acknowledged for the multiple treaty violations ending in the wrongful theft of our lands,” Zimiga-January said. “I am the kind of person who doesn’t want just words, I want the acceptance and action. I want to see that there is true meaning and action taking place.”
Zimiga-January has found herself in the midst of another controversial logo design debate—mascots. She went to Castlewood High School in South Dakota and the Castlewood Warriors mascot used to be the stereotypical image of an Indian chief’s head in profile. The school slowly stopped using the imagery in the early 2010s and finally came up with a new logo in 2016. Zimiga-January designed it.
- It’s just a mascot: “I can never understand why people get so bent out of shape about a mascot and then call it tradition and call it honor and when somebody says ‘I don’t find this honoring, please don’t do it,’ and then it’s a fight,” Zimiga-January said.
- Native American imagery as educational opportunities? “That never happened. That was never ever going to happen,” Zimiga-January said. “There’s nothing about this that is good for Native people.”
- Shifting momentum: “It’ll change, especially with the kids. In my experience, the young people can see it once you explain it. They understand it. They’re ready for that change.”
West St. Paul
Like a lot of neighbors, affordability initially drew Zimiga-January to West St. Paul. But then she described neighbors inviting them over for the holidays and going out into the community to local places like Gallagher’s, El Cubano, and the old JT’s Hamburgers.
- Community: “For us, our biggest draw was the people. We like our neighborhood. We feel safe here.”
- Native land in West St. Paul? “I would love to be approached by someone in West St. Paul that says ‘Hey, why don’t you put up banners in this area that say you are on Native land.’”
- West St. Paul’s Native American history? There’s little history of specific Native American settlements in what is now West St. Paul. There’s the nearby village of Kaposia in South St. Paul and stories of Little Crow, but not much about West St. Paul specifically, though we did use a number of Native Americans names for our streets and appropriated Native imagery for our shopping center and schools.
- What about the Two Rivers name change? “Having that history here might help,” Zimiga-January said. “Maybe people don’t want to know? I don’t know why not but maybe. I just think there’d be a lot of people that would want to know the Dakota history of this area. I sure do.”
How we talk about history continues to evolve:
- Sources: “I think a lot of people go through life knowing the history they were taught. So the big push for people of other communities to share their history, that’s something I’m very adamant about.”
- Facing the sins of history: “I’m originally from South Dakota, and right now the governor of South Dakota and the politicians in place are trying to rewrite curriculum so it leaves out pieces of our history. Because they don’t want kids to feel uncomfortable that their ancestors occupied stolen land, and if not land, their ancestors owned slaves?” Zimiga-January said. “But we’re all a part of that.”
- Shared history: For all her Native ancestry, Zimiga-January also has a white ancestor who became a wealthy landowner by marrying multiple Native American women who were just teenagers at the time. “But you know, that’s part of my history,” she said. “I don’t want to hide that, that’s history.”
Where do you find hope in the wider struggle of racism?
- “I really thought as a Gen Xer, that my generation had it figured out,” she said, lamenting how Facebook has made racism more visible.
- “Am I hopeful? I’m absolutely hopeful. But I think it takes a lot of people to have conversations about race. A lot of people to admit when they are being racist. A lot of people to listen when someone says, ‘Hey, I’m offended by that and this is why.’ Listen to that. Instead of being angry, be humble about it and apologetic about it, I think right away people jump to why they’re gonna defend what they said or how they said it or what they did, rather than just stop and listen to somebody.”
Bio: Adrienne Zimiga-January
- Home: Has lived in West St. Paul since 2014 with her husband Cortez and two dogs, Binney and Max.
- Work: A marketing design specialist for Llewellyn Worldwide, a freelance designer, and an actor.
- What’s next? Appears in the film Zitkála-Šá, an opera about the life of writer, musician, educator, and activist Zitkála-Šá, which premieres this month.
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