January–February 2023


Spirits on the Land

An augmented reality art project views a natural site through a native lens.

Ryan Rodgers

In a green oasis near the hubbub of downtown St. Paul, a water serpent hovered over a spring-fed pond and growled a warning: “Watch out, human. I am Unktehi (oonk-TEH-hee), the protector of the waters.” Lotus-finned fish swirled around the blue-bodied creature with its elk-like rack and the spiked tail of a dragon. 

“Is it real?” breathlessly asked a 5-year-old, her eyes popping wide at the scene in front of her as she visited Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary on a sunny October day. The water serpent was superimposed on the camera viewfinder screen of a smartphone as part of the Dakota Spirit Walk, an augmented reality installation by multimedia artist Marlena Myles. Employing an AR app that visitors download on their phones, the installation layers colorful digital artworks over the real world and includes four stops that Myles hopes will help participants “see the land through Dakota people’s eyes.”

While walking the sanctuary’s paths, Myles said, “If we say something is sacred, that’s hard for people to understand. This walk gives visuals and audio to understand what that means.” 

Around her, dried stalks of planted bluestem and switchgrass grew from postindustrial ground. St. Paul made this a park in the early 2000s after a century of hard use as a railyard. For generations prior, however, Dakota people lived nearby in a riverside village called Kaposia (Kah-P’OH-zha). Ancient burial mounds edged the blufftops; a revered cave called Wakan Tipi (wah-KAWN TEE-pee) contained talismanic rattlesnake petroglyphs. After the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862, the Dakota were exiled from Minnesota, including Myles’s family, who were pushed into North Dakota.

Myles came up with the Dakota Spirit Walk idea in 2020 and found a creative collaborator in Todd Boss, a poet and producer who was seeking artists for augmented reality projects with the Minneapolis-based creative studio Pixel Farm. By late 2021 the installation was up and running. It can now be experienced by any sanctuary visitor with a smartphone at marlenamyl.es/dakota-spirit-walk. 

At the last stop, between sandstone cliffs and busy train tracks blocking off the Mississippi River, Wakinyan (wah-KEEN-yah), the thunder being, rises fiercely in alternating blue and red currents. Myles depicts Wakinyan with a pair of mirroring triangles.

“Dakota people believe that what happens above is reflected below,” she said. “The Milky Way—the spirit road we travel in the afterlife—is reflected on earth as the Mississippi River, which is why so many burial mounds are nearby. Wakinyan is the link between heaven and earth.” Myles paused to let a train rumble by. “I want people to see this can be a happy place, a place where we learn from and rejuvenate our minds.”