by Kim Schneider
The goal of a Winona State University (WSU) student-led initiative is to increase inclusion of Native American culture on campus by creating a learning garden near the “End of the Trail” statue on the WSU campus.
Now called the Indigenous Learning Garden Initiative, the project is similar to one considered seven years ago by faculty member Cindy Killion.
WSU junior Alex Paulson and Aaron Camacho, a nontraditional WSU student in her second year, took on the project last spring when they realized they had one thing in common — they both saw a disparity in education about indigenous people. “The idea is to create a forum for cultural exchange and understanding,” said Paulson of the project. “We don’t have an opportunity to learn when it pertains to Native American culture,” explained Camacho, who belongs to the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. “Unless we learn our history, we’re only going to keep repeating it.”
Their preliminary plans include a copper lodge, a drum circle, a stream that connects with the Performing Arts Center (PAC) fountain and a number of other artistic elements to make the area by the statue more of an educational space related to Native American culture. Additionally, organizers plan to line the inside of the lodge with 3D art or engravings that could be used as tools to educate students and the community about the lifestyles of different Native American tribes. For example, students and community members could experience the texture of basket weaving by feeling a 3D artistic impression of it.
Camacho and Paulson also said that the floor of the lodge might have an LED light to signify a fire pit. Each part of the design has significance to Native American culture.
Camacho said community members, faculty and fellow students believe the "End of the Trail" statue in front of the PAC needs to be contextualized. “It’s a very famous image,” said WSU Professor Wayne Ripley. “The statue was produced in a time when the dying and dead Indian was a common image.”
While some view the statue as a man returning home at the end of the day, others view it as the end of indigenous people.
“For some people [the statue] was seen as a sign for what the whites had done to Native Americans,” Ripley said. “Some took it as a call to action, a reminder of everything they’ve gone through.” Some faculty members, Ripley added, are made a bit uncomfortable by the statue.
Organizers of the Indigenous Learning Garden Initiative hope to change this perspective and transform the area into a positive learning environment.
Regardless of how you view it personally, initiative organizers believe it’s important to keep the statue in the garden, partly to honor the statue’s artist, James Earl Fraser, who is from Winona, but also so the statue could be used as a tool for cultural education.
Paulson said the students realized they wanted to make the area a more constructive space, so they began reaching out. The dynamic duo contacted 25 tribal nations, among them 11 federally recognized tribal nations of Minnesota.
“This is a good way to build bridges between communities,” Camacho explained.
They also sat down with Winona LaDuke, a nationally known Native American and environmental activist, who visited campus in early November to speak on global climate change.
Paulson and Camacho stressed that they hope to make the plans as inclusive as possible. They have reached out to the faculty senate, student senate and the WSU president and his cabinet for feedback. All offered letters of support for the project.
“We want to make sure we have that feedback to make a better design the first time,” explained Paulson.
Local resident Ervin Bublitz made this project possible through generous donations. As for the conceptual design of the project, local artist Teri Halweg of Fountain City Design has been working closely with Paulson and Camacho.
As the group moves forward with the design, they foresee further changes to their construction plans because they hope to make the artwork using sustainable products. Paulson and Camacho hope to have the learning garden completed by the next Dakota Nation Gathering in September 2015.