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Sisseton, Veblen, & Agency Village, South Dakota

For the pilot phase of We the Many, Arts Midwest partnered with the Sisseton Arts Council in Sisseton, South Dakota (population 2,500). Sisseton’s We the Many spurred art shows, traveling galleries, pop-ups, art classes, and new albums of music.

Community members gather for an exhibit opening, including a contributing artist Norvin Moreno.
Photo by: Sisseton Arts Council

About Sisseton Arts Council

Sisseton Art Council’s mission is to build an appreciation and awareness of the arts by recognizing resources and promoting cultural enrichment. The town of Sisseton, SD is located in the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation, which is home to the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Indian tribe. Today, approximately half of the population of Sisseton is Native American. The small but diverse community has city, county, and tribal governments with a tribal college.

Visit the Sisseton Arts Council Website

A reflective 8 point star sculpture stands on a circular cement slab in the middle of the grass. In the background, there's a bulldozer and people surrounding another sculpture in progress.
Photo by: Sisseton Arts Council

Artist in Residence: Alex Barreto Hathaway

Alex Barreto Hathaway is a process-based artist and educator that leans into playfulness, clown, mask and physical theatre, clown again, stories that celebrate the Latinx experience, and projects that partner with non-theatre groups. He earned his BA in Theatre Arts at the University of Minnesota with a thesis project exhibiting Mask, Puppetry, and Street Theatre practices studied in Pernambuco, Brazil. Beyond theatre, Barreto Hathaway makes illustrations, writes tri-lingual folk songs, hosts artist “salons” for new work, and sustains an ongoing project that serves artists, farmers and grass-roots organizers in Puerto Rico, where he is originally from.

Headshot of a smiling person of medium light skin tone and buzzed dark hair, with a short beard/mustache, wearing a tie, sweater and jacket.
Photo by: Alex Barreto Hathaway

Community Stories from Sisseton, Veblen, & Agency Village

We the Many began as a community listening project in summer 2019. From the start, the project sought to use creativity, empathy, and optimism to support three Midwestern towns in building new bridges within and beyond their communities. We came together to celebrate community assets, co-create new arts experiences, and coordinate artist-in-residence programs that would bring people together to explore Midwestern identity and vitality.

Celebrating Sisseton

In June 2021, 15 months after the COVID-19 pandemic first reached the state of South Dakota, the Sisseton community came together at Celebrate Sisseton.

An event that drew on more than a year of sharing, dreaming, and planning by We the Many artists and community members, Celebrate Sisseton included a traveling gallery, pop-up art making station for festival goers, and performances by musicians such as Bryan Akipa and Starr Chief Eagle, artist in residence Alex Barreto Hathaway, and local performers Georgia Streier, Derrick Lawrence, Melanie Yost, Olivia Bartnick, Josh Anderson and Janeen Kohl.

The weekend also included the opening of an art show at Nicollet Tower & Interpretive Center. The space was both lively with the energy of an art opening, and reflective of the meaning behind the moment.

As program coordinator Madeline Achen reflected on the experience “It was a really amazing moment of finally getting to meet the people that I’ve been seeing over zoom – to just be excited to be together and to say, “Oh, I recognize the place in that painting” and start telling each other stories…”

Jane Rasmussen, Director of the Sisseton Arts Council, added “I think I’ll always hear that laughter in the room. That was so special. It was like, that was the moment when we, when we were together in person after all those months of zoom.”

The show featured artwork created in response to interviews of 30 individuals from Sisseton, Agency Village, and Veblen. Local artist, MJ Derhak, was energized by the stories that came from the project, which directly inspired the work she created. “I was going to listen to around half of the community interviews, and when I started listening to them, they were so interesting that I couldn’t stop. They were so wonderful and vulnerable,” said MJ. “I probably could have created maybe 20 more pieces out of the interviews that I listened to, but there wasn’t enough time. That was kind of the frustrating part – I wanted everybody to walk into the gallery and see themselves.”

“We the Many has pushed us to work harder to make our area an arts community… I feel like this project has pushed different people into getting involved—and that can be really, really community-changing for the better.”

– MJ DERHAK, local artist and We the Many participant

Getting Creative Online

In the darkness, the power of creativity comes to light.

Sisseton’s We the Many artists and community partners never expected that they would find themselves trying to bring people together during a global pandemic. But like many of us in 2020, they had to navigate the unprecedented – adapting gatherings to social distancing and finding new ways to foster creativity over Zoom. Their efforts had a deep impact at a time when people needed it most and proved the power and possibility of building bridges to new audiences.

“This experience was so profound for me. Just the fact that I’m painting again. And I keep telling myself that now because I need to push to continue to do that, because it’s easy to fall back and think, “Oh, I need to perm my poodle instead.” – MJ Derhak, local artist and We the Many participant

“I learned a lot of things, like how to paint and draw, and it was fun.” – Norvin Moreno, youth art participant from Veblen

“The need for relationships has been accentuated even more. We may be gathering in different ways, but we are still making connections. Meeting and talking and seeing the process evolve is extremely energizing” – Karie Geyer, We the Many participant and community partner

“A lot of people were popping up on zoom calls and I thought wow, we live in the same town but never knew each other. There were a lot of people that I never met before this project…You feel more a part of the community now. I lived here and felt a part of the tribal part of the community but never felt a part of the other parts. I see people now and I say “Hey!” It’s neat because it’s making us more of a community”

– DUSTINA GILL, local artist and We the Many participant

Connecting Communities & Cultures

We the Many seeks to help communities build new bridges, express and experience creativity, and expand our collective definition of Midwestern identity. From the start, Sisseton structured their work to do just that, by connecting to neighboring towns. Located within a 20-mile radius of each other, the towns of Sisseton, Agency Village, and Veblen are all located within the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation, the homeland of the federally recognized Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. About one-third of Lake Traverse Indian Reservation inhabitants identify as of solely Native American heritage. Others are recent immigrants from Central America or are descendants from White European settlers. We the Many provided community members an opportunity to reflect on how these many identities shape a sense of place.

A group of people gather and sit around a speaker at an art exhibit.
Photo by: Sisseton Arts Council

“While playing soccer last Monday in Sisseton, the primary language on the field wasn’t English, it wasn’t Spanish, it was K’iche’ — an indigenous Mayan language. What’s fascinating is that in a community where the Dakota language and culture is thriving, so is K’iche’.”

ALEX BARRETO HATHAWAY, We the Many artist-in-resident
Album cover with photo of a blue sky that read "Same Sky by Patrick Jenkins."
Album cover with photo of a blue sky that read “Same Sky by Patrick Jenkins.”

Sounds of Sisseton

The interviews were also the inspiration for a new album, by local singer-songwriter Patrick Jenkins, who drew on the conversations to create 10 original songs. Same Sky is available on Bandcamp.

Each part of the series wove together the stories of this community into layered, thoughtful, creative pieces – a fitting finale to two years of work together.

“I believe we could get along / I believe we could make a change

Do you? / I do.

I know this is a small town / but you can still have big dreams

I do. / Do you?”

– Lyrics from Are You Listening? from Same Sky, inspired by an interview with community member Kierra Silk about her hopes and dreams and the promise of the future.

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