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Drawing Student Angela Two Stars Helps Revive the Language of Her Ancestors Through Art

Posted January 17, 2017 in Prototype (student spotlight)Drawing

Angela Two Stars is making up for lost time. Though the Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) Drawing student was born into the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux tribe of Native Americans, she had long operated with only a preschool-level understanding of her tribe’s Dakotah language. 

Drawing student Angela Two StarsAngela Two Stars (credit: Eric Papenfuss)

That all changed three years ago when Two Stars got an email from the Dakotah Language Institute, an initiative of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux dedicated to preserving the ancient language. The institute was looking to recruit younger members of the tribe to their cause. At that time, there were only about 70 fluent Dakotah speakers left, with an average age of 78.

“It was a wake-up call for me,” Two Stars says. “It got me wondering what I could do to help with this revitalization.”

The email was also cause for reflection. Two Stars’ parents do not speak Dakotah either. Like her, they were raised to speak English in order to facilitate assimilation into American culture. Two Stars’ grandmother Estelline, her strongest link to the language, passed away when Two Stars was 10 years old.

“My grandmother suffered in boarding school. She was punished there for speaking her own language, so she did not speak it in the home either. She wouldn’t share it with her children, with my dad. My siblings and I, we only got very small bits,” says Two Stars. “As a young kid it didn’t bother me because I went to the public school. I didn’t go to the tribal school, so I didn’t really know I was missing out on anything.”

Now, as an adult, Two Stars saw working with the Dakotah Language Institute as an opportunity to reconnect with her cultural heritage and accept a portion of the responsibility for preserving it. “I began to think about what this would open up: information, culture, all the things I missed out on in my youth,” she says

As an artist, Two Stars has been leveraging her creativity to help the institute develop resources aimed at making Dakotah more accessible for young and old learners alike. One of her first projects was a series of illustrated bookmarks that feature Dakotah phrases on one side and English translations on the other. She aimed to spur impromptu engagement with the language, even slipping a number of them into library books. 

bookmarks created by Angela Two StarsBookmarks Two Stars created that translate common English phrases to Dakotah. She placed them randomly in library books to spur impromptu engagement with the language. (credit: Eric Papenfuss)

“It’s kind of like when you find a forgotten grocery list or receipt in a book, but this time you’ve been exposed to the Dakotah language,” she says. “It’s a more casual and fun approach.”

Like the bookmarks, other pieces Two Stars has developed – such as illustrations of animals paired with their Dakotah name and a large-format jigsaw puzzle that helps users understand the basic grammar of the language – expand the Dakotah Language Institute’s repertoire of visual communication tools. While oral communication, either face-to-face in classes or workshops or through recordings made by tribal elders, has long been one of the institute’s primary techniques, visual resources provide a different entry point into the language that’s especially beneficial for younger children.

“These resources provide a creative way of learning, making it a fun and engaging opportunity,” says Two Stars. “If you make the language more engaging for children, it’s going to make them want to learn it. Also, if you make it exciting for parents, they’ll invest in it more.”

Others pieces Two Stars created, such as large-format jigsaw puzzles and flash cards of Dakotah animal names, help introduce younger learners to the language (credit: Angela Two Stars)

Outside of her work with the Dakotah Language Institute, Two Stars has been pursuing other opportunities to expose her Dakotah-themed fine artwork to a larger audience. Two of her pieces, “Hogan” and “Memories of a Space,” are currently being shown in the third installment of an exhibition series called On Fertile Ground at the All My Relations gallery in Minneapolis, Minn., focused on celebrating the diverse work of Native American artists from the upper Midwest.

Drawing student Angela Two StarsTwo Stars in front of her work at All My Relations gallery (credit: Eric Papenfuss)

Earlier this year, she was selected to display a selection of her work in the emerging artist area of the East Lansing Art Festival in East Lansing, Mich. There, she had the opportunity to connect with individuals from all walks of life and share the work she’s doing with the Dakotah Language Institute. 

work by Angela Two StarsWork by Angela Two Stars: “Hogan” (above) and “Memories of a Space” (below) (images courtesy of the artist)

work by Angela Two Stars

“My work is specific to my tribe, but it’s something that, as art, people can bring their own experiences to,” she says. “It also speaks to other people that have their own experiences with languages that aren’t Native American. People have shared stories with me about their native languages from Europe. It’s not just my tribe that’s concerned with preservation; it’s other cultures and other languages too.”

As Two Stars’ journey into the language of her ancestors deepens, so does her understanding of the impact she can have with her creative practice.

“Art is a great way to share information, and if you want a language to survive you have to share it,” she says. “That’s what I do with my platform as an artist.”

See more of Angela Two Stars’ work at  angelatwostars.com.

For more information on the Drawing program at KCAD, visit kcad.edu/drawing.


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