Indigenous Art and History in St. Paul’s Chroma Zone

I went back in time on the streets along University Avenue between Fairview and Raymond in St. Paul in search of the murals of the Midway Chroma Zone. It was May 2023 and it was June 1973. It was 1491 and it was 1857, the year before Minnesota’s admission as a state. Was it also 2024?

Section of The Kaposia Times-Journal, Marlena Myles

The Midway Chroma Zone sponsors’ website says that they “advocate for public art that advances justice, health and human dignity” and tells us: Chroma Zone is a celebration of the artistry and community that leverages the power of public art to promote, connect and engage the people, places and creative economy of the Zone.

Further: Chroma Zone is intended to (be) a national hub of street art, and bring increased economic vitality, community dialogue, and beauty to this neighborhood and the businesses and residences that encompass it. We attract and support creative people and businesses to #MakeItHere!

Getting to History

I returned in July, this time on bike, the best way to see this art. Fatter tires, hydraulic suspension and a kickstand are recommended for this four- or five-mile tour. I bounced around here before, on a late-’60s narrow tire five-speed Schwinn. Light rail stops at Fairview and Raymond land you in the middle of the zone, and several Metro Transit bus lines likewise get you very close, including the 63 (Grand Avenue), 87 (Cleveland Avenue) and 67 (University to Franklin).

Diamondback Sherwood, from Now Sports

For me, seeing the Indigenous-made and Indigenous-inspired murals brought me into both the region’s history and my own past. These perspectives inform this, my first extended consideration of visual art. For better and for worse, public art often promotes specific ideas and understanding — subtly or with a scream. The Christopher Columbus statue, symbol of invaders, has been removed by force from the Minnesota State Capitol grounds. Nathan Hale, hero-spy-martyr of my ancestors’ (colonists, exiles, settlers and refugees) War of Independence (Revolutionary War), reminds us from his Summit Avenue plinth (at the three-way intersection of Summit, Portland and Western) that the fights for freedom carry the risk of violence. What messages are found, what is missing in the new Chroma Zone art?

Fifty years ago I was working on the loading dock of the National Mower Company on Raymond Avenue. The week before I had trudged through the work-a-day world of bottlers, shippers and manufacturers of the Midway, knocking on doors for summer employment. There was no opening for me that summer at the R.C. Cola bottling plant a mile east. Hoerner Waldorf’s paper mill soaked the air with funk, but no job. Trains and trucks rumbled, honked and shrieked. A few houses and small apartment buildings hung on in corners of the area south of St. Anthony Park. Lunch wagon pickup trucks with packaged sandwiches, aged apples and cigarettes made scheduled rounds. There were a few bars and diners. Three hundred enterprises, maybe more, stretched a few blocks north and south of University Avenue between Snelling and Highway 280.

Robert Kinkead, who founded National Mower Company in 1919, came to work every day as did three office workers and the 20 men (and it was all men) on the factory floor. My job was to crate up five freshly painted 36-inch, 80-pound reel mowers that shipped with each Briggs & Stratton–powered green tractor. Each had five sharp blades which rotated with axles when pulled behind the tractors. The sword-sharp steel blades’ fast swipes against the reels’ bed blades groomed fairways’ finest grasses to uniform length and appearance.  

While working, I listened to Minnesota Public Radio’s special report on the rebellion and repression at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The occupation called attention to the dire conditions there and to indigenous demands for restored sovereignty, led largely by the American Indian Movement (AIM). The U.S. military brought in armored war machines, and they and related forces fired a half-million rounds of ammunition. AIM fired back. Several people died. It was dramatic and to a liberal college kid moving leftward, an exciting example of a liberation movement brought closer to home. Wounded Knee was still far, far away. I didn’t know it then but a future friend, colleague and inspiring teacher was there, crawling through gullies and smuggling supplies into Wounded Knee.

Public Art on the Streets: Then and the Scene Today

Was there art in the Midway 50 years ago? Some painted hood scoops on Camaros and Mustangs? That’s art. Public art at that. Doors of some Peterbilt trucks were elaborately decorated. Looking around, there are vintage remnants of art from the past.

Art at the original Key’s Restaurant on Raymond. How long has the flamingo stooped?
The Chittenden & Eastman (a mattress company) buildings front face at Raymond and University was beautifully designed and is now nicely restored.
The headquarters of what was the Hoerner Waldorf Company remains today an Art Deco statement of wealth and style.

But it was certainly not an arts district; there was no Dow Art building at 2242 University with its dozens of studios. Chroma Zone has changed the Midway as the Midway has changed.

Today National Mower Company’s compact, single-story, clerestory-roofed building is home to offices. The loading dock is gone. The light-colored bricks have been cleaned and tuck-pointed. The clerestory is light green — not the dark green of National Mower — and likely those windows do not open as they did for the mechanics, drill press operators, painters and assemblers who labored throughout that summer of 1973. Lovely landscaping and central air comfort the computer and literacy and other workers who now labor there without the sweat, steel filings and hydrocarbons of mower-makers.

National Mower Co. building is now offices.

Many of the area’s warehouse, manufacturing and transportation buildings are marked with a uniform band of spring green and dark gray paint below the roof lines — marking them as part of the Midway Mile Industrial Campus venture’s 18 buildings comprising nearly 2 million square feet. It’s an imported-from-the suburbs, “Amazonian” aesthetic, I think. Gopher Plumbing Supply holds out — the stripe around the top of their building is brown.

Midway Mile’s green motif across from Gopher Plumbing Supply

The streets north and south of University are still pretty rough — railroad tracks, cobbles, busted-up pavements. The St. Paul-Pembina-Red River fur-trading oxcart trail traversed the area 180 years ago. The fur traders were a mix of Indigenous and immigrants and perhaps their ruts still plague cyclists. Oh yes, murals come into sight.

A cat mural sees cycle challenges on Charles Avenue

The Murals: A Sampling

There are murals showing many people and styles in the Zone. The Chroma Zone aims for “full representation of BIPOC, women and non-binary artists,” and this is evident in a Hmong-manga mashup, another depicting Black arms cutting shackles comprised of barbed wire, others showing animals of the African plains, green bicycles, African beauties and more. One, Untitled (The Midway), shows the zone’s industrial history, with a heroic overall-clad woman laborer.

Winship: Untitled (The Midway)

My recollection of the radio updates from Wounded Knee while working in the Midway and my later work with Wounded Knee veterans led me to center this article on some, but not all of the Zone’s Indigenous and Indigenous-influenced art.

Located a few blocks north of my former loading dock is The Kaposia Times Journal by Marlena Myles. A stylish Dakota couple read The Kaposia Times newspaper on a park bench near the bend of the Mississippi the Dakota called Kaposia, just upriver from South St Paul. A sailboat makes its way past the junction of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. Flowers and animals, tipis, trees and stars scatter across the scene. Two stars stand over the land inside the river’s loop we now call the Midway. Behind clouds at each end for the mural grow up the tall buildings of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Myles says she draws on her Spirit Lake Dakota/Mohegan/Muscogee ancestry in her art. “The…Journal” amuses and it teaches. The newspaper alludes to lost or obscured history. And more hopefully, to new awareness both today and tomorrow.

Marlena Myles: The Kaposia Times Journal mural

Missy Whiteman painted Celestial Embodiment: X and shows “A transformational process of destruction and rebirth” using a combination of realistic and abstract figures painted against a band of stars in a blue universe. The child, her daughter, is the center of the universe. Nature here, and in all the Indigenous murals, is ever-present. A butterfly behind the girl, we are told at the Chroma Zone website, quietly honors the missing and the murdered and their survivors. 

Beauty and profound loss.

Missy Whiteman: Celestial Embodiment: X

Povi Marie, a Pueblo/Diné woman, comes closest to direct messaging with her painting Land Back.

Povi Marie: Land Back

But the contrast of smiling beings with that overarching demand is more than a bit cutesy and probably purposefully so. Camouflage I think. Her Untitled (Little Ancestors) features two cute smiling American Indian youth and a smiling sun. I missed their connection to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives and to boarding school survivors until I reviewed the Chroma Zone artists’ website.  (The site gives us many of the artists’ interpretations and motivations.)

Loss and laughter.

Povi Marie: Untitled (Little Ancestors)

Holly (Miskitoos) Henning, Marten Falls Anishinaabe and Constance Lake Oji-Cree First Nations painted Waasamo-inini (Holds the Lightning) in which a bear and a thunderbird watch from the sides as her son’s brown hand grasps one of many lightning bolts that dash across the painting’s blue beams and bear prints. The movement of color and design across the wall show power and the unity of family and nature.

Henning: Waasamo-inini (Holds the Lightning)

Four blocks east of what was once National Mower is Bird Friend, by Jennifer Davis, painted on the north wall of an out-of-the way gas station. The building remnant has a tiny footprint: Are customers even allowed inside? But it stands two stories high. Davis’ mural covers the wall with a dominant bird and colorful plant life that recalls Indigenous beadwork. Her artist’s statement acknowledges that she lives and works on land taken from Dakota and Anishinabe people. Bird Friend perches and watches attentively in this, one of the smaller murals.

Jennifer Davis: Bird Friend

Thomasina Topbear, Santee Dakota & Oglala Lakota, created Unci Maka, which translates to Grandmother Earth. She, like many of the artists, focuses on nature: flowers, hummingbird, butterfly and a morning star quilt pattern. The artist’s statement: “Language & representation of the original Indigenous people of this land is very important as we have endured over a century of forced assimilation and erasure of our culture. We are still here and I do think it’s very important that our culture is shared.” The well-loved sunflowers, bumblebees and Monarch butterflies accomplish that sharing very nicely. Unci Maka Grandmother Earth embodies great beauty to cover massive loss?

Topbear: Unci Maka

Reflections and Re-Thinking

We can see the spirit, the pride, the humor and hints of the past and future of the Indigenous people of this land in these Chroma Zone murals. But the specifics of history, to my eye, are hidden. I also wondered about the use of Indigenous images by white artists given recent and real questions about “appropriation.” I thought, at one stage: “Let’s leave out Davis’ Bird Friend.”

Then I asked myself:

  • “Where among these Indigenous murals are the people of AIM, people who opened minds and eyes to the possibilities we can see in these murals?”
  • “Shouldn’t we credit those who risked much to demand that this culture be respected and revived?”
  • “Are we forgetting the people who demanded to be seen and heard and who set the stage for these artists’ work?”

I wondered: “Where is the mural celebrating leaders like my friend, colleague and teacher Patricia Bellanger (Pat), a citizen of Leech Lake tribe and Minnesota and the world?”

A founder of St. Paul Open and Heart of the Earth Survival Schools, “mother” of AIM, leader of the International Indian Treaty Council, a brain behind Women of All Red Nations. The supplies-smuggler at Wounded Knee in 1973, a legal advocate, founder of the Rural Coalition, an organizer. A woman with a strong and beautiful spirit and work ethic, a kind and inclusive teacher, a radical for sovereignty, a poet of interpersonal relations.

Then, sometime later, I inquired, “Am I the one to ask these questions? Am I the one to propose answers?” 

And finally: “How would Pat respond, were she alive and viewing the murals today?”   

I think Pat would be filled with joy that her people’s — that so many people’s — history and art and spirit now fill miles of St. Paul streets. She’d think of her brothers and sisters from around Turtle Island whose values and cultures are painted so brightly. She’d know that the wall owners will limit the content of the art. She’d rejoice that artists who are not Indigenous now share the beauty of her world in their work. Pat would say that her people’s and our world’s survival takes more than hard struggle, it takes investing in and supporting culture and beauty. Pat would say that no statue or mural is wanted as a commemoration. She’d look to what her friends and family and allies accomplish as her legacy. Pat teaches still.

Get a mural map from the Chroma Zone website or head out on your bicycle and carefully roll randomly across the Zone. Enjoy. Find a favorite local brew site. Think and talk about art and history. 

Change your mind.

See for Yourself

The Chroma Zone Mural & Art Festival — a celebration of public art and community — returns to St. Paul’s Creative Enterprise Zone this year on September 14, 15 and 16 with at least eight new murals and three days of artist-led programs and events.

Photos by author or with permission of Chroma Zone. Artists’ self-descriptions and statements summarized from the Chroma Zone website.

About James Wilkinson

Pronouns: he/we

Jay Wilkinson lives in St. Paul. He is a cyclist, creative writer, community volunteer and care-giver. He retired not long ago from a forty year career in public interest and poverty law with Mid-Minnesota Legal Services.

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