Lincoln’s latest public art project will honor Nebraska’s Native population — with a village of painted tipis rising in the city next year.
The United Nebraska Tipi Art Project calls for the creation of 25 to 50 scale-model tipis, their canvases painted to honor the state’s many cultures, but with an emphasis on the tribes that were here first.
The project would debut in Lincoln next May, then travel to Omaha, Grand Island and other cities in the next several years.
“The message we want to send is a message of unity,” tipi maker Leo Yankton said at a meeting Friday to discuss the plan with tribal leaders and art advocates. “In today’s political climate, a lot of what we’re dealing with is divide, and working against each other, and animosity and fear. For us to keep elevating as a society, we definitely need to work together.”
Yankton was inspired by Lincoln’s past public art projects — the bicycles, stars, light bulbs and hearts that were decorated and on display across the city in the past 16 years.
“Every time I’d see the sculptures, I said: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a tipi version of this?’”
So he asked the woman who drove those displays, Liz Shea-McCoy, to coordinate his project, and she said yes.
“Can you just imagine 50 tipis all in one area?” she asked Friday. “It’s another huge undertaking and a huge vision.”
Their project is in its early stages, but they envision tipis that would stand 6 feet — a traditional tipi reaches up to 18 feet — and be mounted on wooden decks anchored to the ground. Their wooden frames and walls would be wrapped and sealed in canvas.
They don’t yet have a final budget, a firm funding source or a place to display the tipis, Shea-McCoy said.
They’ll soon call for artists, with a focus on members of the four tribes that remain in Nebraska — Omaha, Santee, Ponca and Winnebago — and those that were forced to move. They’ll also invite artists to submit proposals representing other, more recent, cultures and backgrounds in Nebraska, she said.
And that prompted some discussion at Friday’s meeting. Thomas Christie, multicultural administrator for Lincoln Public Schools, asked Yankton whether it could be potentially disrespectful or insulting to allow non-Natives to decorate tipis.
But Yankton said he spoke with tribal elders before moving forward with the project, and they supported the idea.
“I haven’t had one person speak negatively or feel like this is an insult to them or to anyone,” he said. “I’m not trying to appropriate our culture; what I’m trying to do is, I’m trying to tell a story.”
Plus, the chosen designs will be vetted for any stereotypical or insensitive images or themes.
Michael Wolfe, chairman of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, endorsed the plan and called on other tribal leaders to join him.
“What’s taking place here, I love it. What I’m jazzed about is the educational tool,” he said.
A tipi village on display in Nebraska’s biggest cities will teach others about the people who were here before them — and remind them that they’re still here.
“I don’t want them to forget who were the first ones in this whole country,” Wolfe said. “I want that wow factor sent out there to people of other colors.”