Where the Buffalo Roam
A new art project honoring Native American history will be constructed on the new Downtown to Bay View Bikeway
It could quite a sight for train passengers heading south: a series of life-size steel buffalo sculptures along the Downtown to Bay View Bikeway. “Anyone riding the Amtrak to Chicago will see the art out their window,” says John Cook, Executive Director of the Native American Awareness Project. The buffalo will be part of phase one in a two-phase Native American art installation project proposed for construction along the newly-paved bike trail.
The new trail, more than a mile long, runs from just east of Barclay St. on Washington St. and the south entrance is on Maple St. just east of Kinnickinnic Ave. and mostly runs along the train tracks. The trail is part of an effort to reclaim the KK River and make it more accessible and more of a recreational amenity.
Cook, a member of the Oneida Indian Tribe, says the art project has been on his mind for a while. The opportunity became more feasible when the Native American Awareness Project joined with Milwaukee’s local Satellite Gallery Project. The two organizations are now working in tandem on this project.
Nolan Peck is a Co-Founder of the Satellite Gallery Project and one of the Lead Artist Coordinators for the installation. “The Satellite Gallery Project basically looks for vacant spaces and rooms to use so that local, under-recognized artists can get their work out in the community,” he says. Peck first met Cook back in April at the Hide House in Bay View, and they have been excited about the art project ever since.
The project’s first phase will include the life-size steel buffalo sculptures dotting the beginning, middle, and end of the trail. These will be filled with various plants and biomass to give them the appearance of buffalo-shaped topiary. The first few are planned to be manufactured at the Milwaukee Makerspace.
Also part of the project: Native History Murals will be painted on the faces of two of the buildings lining the bike trail. The murals will depict the history of Native American culture in the Milwaukee area dating from the early 1500’s up to the modern era.
Jeanette Fellows is one of the lead artists for the murals. Fellows, who met John Cook through an ART Milwaukee Jamboree, says she immediately gravitated to the project, since she’s a member of the Akimel O’Odham, or Pima, Tribe from the Gila River Indian Community. “The idea of a project with a strong Native American connection hit close to the heart for me,” she says. The project has the wholehearted support of several Native American Elders and the local Native American community.
Other planned installations in phase one are rain gardens (which also reduce stormwater runoff) and bike shelters. These bike shelters will be powered via solar cell systems which will keep them lit for use in the evening and early nighttime. The bike shelters will also have QR codes that will not only provide information on Native American history and culture, including language translations and stories told by Native American Elders, but will also advertise local food and business destinations within proximity of the bike trail. Cook hope is that the QR advertising funds will help pay for the topiaries and also help fund trail maintenance.
The ambitious project is still in its infancy, meaning funding and financial backing is still in the process of being secured, so the QR advertising is important. Jamie Gierczak, another Co-Founder and Head of Administration for the Milwaukee Satellite Gallery Project, says “We hope various organizations will help fund this project.” One plan, she notes, is to sell sponsorships for the herds of topiary buffalo, so each is sponsored by local organizations and businesses. “We are also in the process of writing grants for the Wisconsin Arts Board and The Milwaukee Satellite Galleries will hold fundraising events as well,” she adds.
“By the end of August, we plan to have the first herd of buffalo going up,” Gierczak says. “After that, we plan on starting the first set of murals in the fall.” She expects the project will take three years to complete.
The Native American Awareness Project and the Milwaukee Satellite Gallery Project have come together to create art installations that will help to better illustrate the Native American roots in the bedrock of Milwaukee’s history and culture. According to 2012 census estimates, 0.9% of the 1.1% of Wisconsinites who are American Indian or Alaska Native live in Milwaukee County, so this area remains the heart of their cultural presence.
The installation of the buffalo near the railroad track, where the chugging, rolling sound of the Amtrak can be heard, brings another image to mind for Cook. “The sound of the train going by will somewhat mirror the sound of a herd of buffalo,” he says. By the end of the summer, those herds may be metaphorically stampeding onto the KK bike trail.