Artist Profile: Breathing new life into Native legends with Marlena Myles

Artist Marlena Myles // Photo by Emily Winters

Though she may appear a mythical being on the cover, Zitkála-Šá was a flesh-and-bone Dakota Sioux translator, writer, musician, teacher, and activist. Taken by missionaries from her home in 1884 on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota to a Quaker boarding school in Indiana, she became one of the first of the Dakota Sioux to use her assimilated education to translate traditional Native stories into English, a brazen act of resistance in a time when Native American cultures were actively being erased. An accomplished musician, Zitkála-Šá wrote “The Sun Dance Opera,” the first-ever Native American opera based on sacred Sioux and Ute rituals.

“At that time, our religions were outlawed, and the Sun Dance was a healing ceremony that was outlawed,” says Marlena Myles, the artist portraying Zitkála-Šá on this month’s cover. Though the traditional ritual was banned by the U.S. government, elevating it as an opera opened up a sly loophole—and performing the ritual on stage required a Native American cast. “So she was sort of being sneaky and thinking of alternative ways to save our culture.”

Inspired by Zitkála-Šá’s mission to resist white assimilation and preserve indigenous culture, Marlena is picking up the torch with her own work, drawing on traditional themes and design to portray Native legends and figures in a new light.

As a self-taught artist of Spirit Lake Dakota, Mohegan, Muscogee descent, Marlena didn’t previously give much thought to what it was to be Native American, outside of her own upbringing in Connecticut and South Dakota. Her association with Native art was through traditional crafts that her mother practiced like beadwork, which she never took to—she was always more technologically inclined. “I just don’t have the dexterity in my fingers to do such handmade things,” she says. “And I’m really good at computers—I can learn a new program in a matter of days.”

When she began creating digital art in 1998, it was a friend’s suggestion that led her to start exploring traditional Native design in her work. “For the longest time, I wasn’t really focused on making Native art, even though it’s always been a part of who I am,” she explains. “It’s like breathing air.”

But once she began illustrating and animating Native characters and spirits, the reactions to her colorful, finely detailed work exposed a real desire to see these narratives be told. “It opened my eyes to people’s reactions to it, to find a real purpose to my art,” she says. “Not just having art for fun, but actually realizing your art can have a purpose for passing on stories to the next generation.”

Unintentionally, Marlena has found a loyal audience among younger generations excited to learn the history behind her work. She’s illustrated several children’s books, including a Dakota-inspired coloring book, and frequently visits classrooms both Native and non-Native kids about the history behind her work. 

“I wasn’t trying to make art for little kids, but I guess we just have the same aesthetic,” she says. “So when I present these spirits in class, I’ll ask the kids, ‘What kind of personality do you think this person has, and what kind of powers do you think they have?’ The kids always get it without me having to explain it to them. I think kids have that special open mind power that we lose as we get older, we stop asking questions. So I always like talking to little kids. They have much more interesting things to say than college kids, honestly.”

She’s also illustrated a land map revealing Dakota landmarks around the Twin Cities, including spots around First Avenue and the baseball stadiums that most people wouldn’t think of as sacred ground. The map serves as a reminder of the history and spirits that continue to occupy the land around us, in spite of modern development. “I want to let urban kids know that just because you’re not growing up on your res, you still have the spirits and imagery here that your ancestors felt.” 

Like Zitkála-Šá before her, Marlena is breathing new life into the legends and vibrant characters of her culture, using digital illustration and animation to give them some fresh edge. “Our culture has its own heroes and spirits, so I like to animate those characters—even digitally animate them so they speak and move—and they speak the language so the kids can see that our culture looks just as cool as Batman and all that.”

Medium: Digital illustration & animation
Currently resides: St. Paul, MN

Growler cover design by Marlena Myles