Healing generations

Stands Up for Herself

MINOT, N.D. –  In many Indigenous communities, an auntie serves as an extra parental role, often providing mental, physical, and spiritual support to younger relatives.

At Minot State, art student Dyana DeCoteau-Dyess has taken on that responsibility in the classroom and at the Native American Cultural Center.

“In a lot of different Indigenous tribes and cultures, we go by auntie when we get a certain age, and I definitely am fulfilling that role here on campus,” she said. “I’ve just been listening, folks just want somebody to listen to them. They’re not looking for solutions, they just want to be heard.”

It was another strong woman — friend and past-classmate Hillary Kempenich — who encouraged DeCoteau-Dyess to enter her photography for the “Noojimo (She Heals)” exhibition at Minneapolis art gallery All My Relations Arts.

“She’s doing amazing things right now, and she had a call for artists for ‘Noojimo’ for all aunties, two-spirited, femme, trans, and gender non-conforming artists,” the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa tribe member said. “At first, I didn’t submit anything because I didn’t feel like I was at that level yet.

“But the last class I had last year was with Ryan Stander, associate professor of art, in digital photography. The lessons he was teaching, and the examples he was showing, it just opened up everything. So I asked my sister to be my model and it was just so empowering. We had fun, we took some great photos, and she cried because she was like, she never thought she could look that beautiful.”

By the time DeCoteau-Dyess was done editing the photos, it was the last day to submit pieces to the exhibition and she decided to take a chance. A week later, Kempenich called to let her know her work was chosen for the show.

The photos are a nod to both her family’s past and their future.

“She Stands Up for Herself” pays homage to her sister, the warrior mother/aunt for her daughter and niece, while “Mashkawizii (Inner Strength)” is about breaking generational trauma with self-healing.

“My sister, Bobbie Jo, and I came out of this turbulent childhood and we’re trying to break generational traumas. It’s really hard, but we don’t want our children to go through what we do,” she said. “In my mission statement, I said that we came from a broken family so we didn’t have those aunties the exhibition talked about. We want to now be the aunties we wish we had.

“They always say the Indigenous people are really resilient, and I believe so. But one day, I just hope we can just be, without having to be resilient.”

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Left: Mashkawizii (Inner Strength)
Right: MMIW (Murdered Missing Indigenous Women)

A lifetime of circumstances, including raising her own brothers, forced DeCoteau-Dyess to put her passions on hold following high school. It took two decades and a family loss before she found herself back in a school setting.

“I put school on the back burner because life happened. But then my grandmother passed away,” she said. “She raised me as her own so I cut my hair as part of our tradition. I was really depressed afterward and felt lost. I went to therapy and after a few sessions, I told my husband and children that I wanted to go back to school — the timing was right.”

An online visual arts course at Dakota College at Bottineau taught by professor Clint Saunders rekindled her love of art.

“Then I took Art with a Smartphone, and he also taught that,” she said. “And I knew I had to go take classes on a campus. So I talked to my husband (Adam), and he encouraged me to go. He’s like, don’t worry, I got your back. Whatever needs to be done, we’ll do this together.”

Graduating with her Associate of Arts in 2021 with top honors from DCB, she next enrolled at Minot State in pursuit of her Bachelor of Arts, majoring in photography.

“At first, it was really frustrating to do with a family at home. Being in our program, you need to go to art seminars, events, volunteer,” she said. “Being off a campus and out of the academic classroom for over 20 years was just eye opening to how hard it was.

“I was really discouraged, but slowly I met amazing professors and advisors and classmates. And so that has helped me continue — being around these amazing students who have been here for four years. It can be intimidating, but they give some amazing critiques and just help keep that ball rolling.”

Expanding her artistic abilities, along with immersing herself more in her culture continues to expand DeCoteau-Dyess’ abilities.

“I was always around Ojibwe heritage, but sadly, my grandmother was a residential school survivor,” she said. “She was a great person, a great mother to me and others, but we really didn’t learn anything about our culture. She had to stop speaking her language and learning about her culture in the boarding school.

“So now I’m like how can I reconnect so I can pass this on to my children?”

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It isn’t unusual to find her two children, 12-year-old Sophia and 6-year-old Ash, on campus or at the Native American Cultural Center, where their mother serves as vice president of the Native American Cultural Club.

“I hope I’m at least opening up opportunities for them to think about when they’re older,” she commented. “It’s just hard being a kid, not even thinking about what you want later, it’s overwhelming. I said, what I want you to work on right now is life foundations of building friends, learning to put up boundaries, learning to speak and voice your opinions, and learning to stand up for others.”

In addition to teaching her children how to use their voices, she is encouraging others with another visual medium — video.

“This summer, Illuminative, the Native American Community Development Institute, and Make Voting a Tradition had a call for Native American artists for their Make Voting a Tradition campaign,” Decoteau-Dyess said. “Again, I was nervous to submit my ideas but decided to go for it. I wrote a script for a 60-second ad and they accepted it! I was super excited and especially happy I was able to work with my husband.

“Right away, I decided I wanted to get community members from my reservations involved. It was a bonus to be able to work with the Native American Culture Club members on campus — I love sharing amazing opportunities with others, especially when it comes to my heritage.”

The Make Voting a Tradition commercial can be found HERE.

About Minot State University
Minot State University is a public university dedicated to excellence in education, scholarship, and community engagement achieved through rigorous academic experiences, active learning environments, commitment to public service, and a vibrant campus life.

Published: 11/03/22   


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