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Falling Star Woman: The Tiny Work of Art that Orbited Earth

Erin Genia, a 2019 Solve Indigenous Communities Fellow and leader of Iapi Gallery, is one of nine artists who collaborated on the MIT Media Lab project Sojourner 2020, a unit launched into low Earth orbit carrying works of art. After 30 days in space, the unit returned to Earth and splashed into the Pacific Ocean on April 7, 2020.

Tell us about your work of art.

My piece is a tiny sculpture—smaller than my fingernail—placed within Sojourner 2020 that illustrates “Falling Star Woman,” a Dakota legend that describes the journey of a star-gazing young woman. 

She travels to space, marries a star person, and gives birth to a star child. Over time, she misses her family, friends, and her work as a plant medicine healer, and she eventually decides to leave her home in the stars and return to her people on Earth. Using the thread of her woven dress as a rope, she climbs down from the stars. However, the thread is not long enough, so she lets go and tumbles down to Earth as a falling star. 

I carved the sculpture from the traditional material of canupa iŋyan (also known as pipestone or catlinite). It shows the moment she is transformed into a falling star and becomes Wicahnpi Hinhpayawin, “Falling Star Woman.” 

Her face appears on one side of the cylinder and her hair flows into the shape of an eight-pointed star on the other end. On her body, I carved a Dakota floral pattern to show the strong pull she felt to resume her duties to her people as a plant medicine healer, and the relevance of the stars to planting seasons.

Where did your inspiration come from?

As a Dakota artist, I was inspired by the possibility of recreating Falling Star Woman’s journey in space, and excited by the opportunity to bring my cultural context to the world of high-tech space travel and space flight—worlds in which you don’t often see Dakota or Indigenous peoples’ represented.

What do you hope to accomplish through this work?

The goal of this project has been twofold. The first is to send my work into a microgravity environment to study changes in the piece when it returns back to earth. The second is inspirational—by bringing a part of Dakota culture into space, this project inspires Dakota youth as they grow into the future.

What has been the most meaningful part of this project?

Watching the ISS orbiting overhead in the night sky with my kids has been epic. It’s also been meaningful to share the story of Falling Star Woman and this project with new audiences.

How is this connected to Iapi Gallery?

Falling Star Woman is a project that has united traditional Dakota cultural elements with science and technology through space travel. It has also been a collaborative project, working with a team of artists from all over the world. 

This project is very much aligned to the values of Iapi Gallery, my project selected for the 2019 Indigenous Communities Fellowship. Much like our work on Sojourner 2020, Iapi Gallery is collaborative, based in traditional culture, and embraces technology.

MIT Solve’s 2020 Indigenous Communities Fellowship is now open until July 7, 2020. Learn how you can get involved and support the work of innovators like Genia.


Photo courtesy of Erin Genia.

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2020 Indigenous Communities Fellowship

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