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UWM Report: New murals celebrate Indigenous sovereignty

May 5, 2023
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The stars are shining bright and a fire is welcoming anyone to visit with an elder to share conversation and stories. There’s even a stump to sit on. A nearby finch brings in another touch of nature.

The stars, the fire and the finch are all part of a new pair of murals celebrating Indigenous sovereignty in the hallway outside the American Indian Student Center and the Electa Quinney Institute on the first floor of Merrill Hall.

Sam Zimmerman-Zhaawanoogiizhik, a Duluth-based artist who draws on his Ojibwe heritage in his work, created the murals as an artist-in-residence at UWM April 1-28. Zimmerman, a Grand Portage Ojibwe direct descendant, Crane Clan, is the first of four artists-in-residence who will be creating artwork with the centers.

During his residency, Zimmerman worked with UWM students who shared learning experiences with him and provided input on the design.

A chance to ‘Indigenize’ a new home
The residencies and the murals grew out of the move of the Electa Quinney Institute and the American Indian Student Center from Bolton Hall to Merrill Hall in October 2022, according to Maurina Paradise, finance and operations manager for the Electa Quinney Institute. “When we moved, Celeste Clark with AISC commented on how the hallway was so empty and we needed to ‘Indigenize’ this space,” Paradise said.

The move to Merrill Hall represents a greater integration of the two centers through its connection to the fire circle located in front of the building. Sharity Bassett from the American Indian Student Center spearheaded a plan with the two centers to develop a vision for the next 50 years on campus.

Art has always played in important role in Indigenous culture and knowledge production, and it can provide a vision for the future that incorporates the depth of our connections to our Indigenous homelands Mark Freeland, director of the Electa Quinney Institute, said.

Bader Philanthropies and a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board’s Woodland Indian Arts program are supporting the residencies.

A sense of belonging
The larger mural, titled “We gather to share,” (Gimaawandoobiimin-ji-kinoo’ amaadyang) features an image of an elder sitting by the fire, with a stump inviting others to join the conversation. The mural includes symbols specific to UWM – 53 pine trees representing the 53 years the American Indian Student Center has served Indigenous students at the university. The 11 eagle feathers on her sleeve symbolize the original indigenous students in UWM’s early years. The phases of the moon represent the passage of time and with 365 stars in the sky symbolizing the year.

Zimmerman’ s murals – which will eventually incorporate three pieces – are also important in reaching out to incoming Indigenous students. “It’s a way to let them feel accepted and celebrated,” Zimmerman said.

That was a theme that came out in conversations with students, he said. He also recalled how alone he felt as an Indigenous student when he started college.

Education and art
Zimmerman said he enjoyed the residency at UWM because it brought together two threads of his life – education and art. He was an educator and special education administrator for many years before returning to Minnesota four years ago to focus on his art.

Although he graduated from high school and art school in New York, he often spent time visiting with his Ojibwe family, particularly his grandfather, in Grand Portage in northern Minnesota.

One of the events he particularly enjoyed at UWM, he said, was having the opportunity to read from a new children’s book, “Zaagi and Misaabekwe,” to kindergartners at the UWM Children’s Learning Center.

The two murals, “We Gather to Share” and a smaller piece, “Dawn Finch,” were unveiled at an event April 27 and celebrated at a community breakfast April 30.