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Chief Buffalo Memorial Project

Over a hundred people, both native and non-native, of all ages lent a hand in painting a mural and observed the blessing ceremony at the Gitchi-Ode’ Akiing park. Moira Villiard, a Duluth visual artist, collaborated with descendants of Chief Buffalo to organize a community mural painting to honor his memory. The project is being led by Moira alongside primary artists Michelle Defoe (Red Cliff Ojibwe), Awanigiizhik Bruce (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe), and Sylvia Houle (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe). The mural has been contributed to by many volunteers as well as received artwork contributions from Ivy Vainio (Grand Portage Ojibwe descendent), Mana Bear Bolton, and Conor Fairbanks.

The community painting started in August 2019 and is an ongoing project set to be finished by the end of Summer 2022. 

“Duluth doesn’t really have a representation of indigenous people that’s by indigenous people and it's just having a space to be visible and to make the history accessible,” Villard told KBJR6.


The Gitchi-ode' Akiing park was formerly known as the Lake Place Park. The city-council passed the renaming of the park in December 2018. Gitchi-ode' Akiing is Anishinaabemowin for "A Grand Heart Place". 

“A lot of people have been residents in Duluth their whole lives and their families have always lived here and they didn’t know the story of Chief Buffalo or they didn’t know just the history of the place or where we are at.”

Land Acknowledgement

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Each volunteer painter was able to teach and learn the history of Chief Buffalo and the Anishinaabe traditions through visual art. It was an opportunity to use visual art as a medium for storytelling.

Chief Buffalo is remembered as a prominent figure that led the Anishinaabe to permanent resettlement in northern Minnesota. He was part of the Loon/Maang Clan, and was authorized by Lake Superior bands to represent them in the negotiation of territory with the U.S.

“There’s just a lot of overlap of different communities that happen in these spaces which makes it exciting because you meet new people and you learn new stories and new histories about the place,” Villiard told Fox 21. “A lot of people have been residents in Duluth their whole lives and their families have always lived here and they didn’t know the story of Chief Buffalo or they didn’t know just the history of the place or where we are at.”

When Chief Buffalo addressed the U.S. president, he presented a pictograph known as the “Symbolic Petition of the Chippewa Chiefs.” Images of the Catfish, Man-fish, Bear, and the three Martens and the Crane symbolizes the Lake Superior bands. The string attached to the hearts and eyes of each creature goes towards the Crane, which was considered one of the leading clans alongside the Loon Clan.

One lone string is drawn away from the Crane and goes off the page, pointing to the spokesperson carrying the document: Chief Buffalo. These strings symbolizes the authority the clans have given to Chief Buffalo to address the U.S. president on behalf of the Lake Superior bands. 

Artistic Process

While the mural is still an ongoing process, Villiard has had plenty of accomplishments with community murals. Different designs are painted on the walls of the stairway. 

The mural started with the painting of aquatic life, designed in part by the community’s youth: vibrant and bold sturgeon, turtles and a fish-person reflect the Anishinaabe’s relationship to water. People of all ages and generations come together and interact with history and art truly creating a community painting.

The mural is accompanied with floral designs along an opposing wall created with stencils by artist Michelle Waabanangagaokwe Defoe, reincarnating the indigenous aesthetics and traditional designs. 

"I had taken photos of old style Ojibwe floral patterns from the Minnesota Historical Society during our Makizin project,” Defoe said. “So I tried to bring some of these designs back to life instead of letting them sit in a museum. These are not my patterns but I did help put them into stencils and now they are alive again on the walls of Duluth along the lakewalk. So much love and heart in this project."

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Each wall is roughly between 10 to 20 feet in length. Within in a day, over a hundred people or all ages and backgrounds came and painted three walls. 

The treaty was not a grant of rights to the Indians, but a grant of rights from them -- a reservation of those not granted." US v. Winans (1905)

Chief Buffalo, known as Bichiki and Gichi-waishke, was a revered figure in the history of Ojibwe people in the western Lake Superior region. The murals are an ongoing effort over the next year or so to convert a large maze of walls near the lake walk to an educational public art space. The murals are painted in collaboration with local community members, and focus on the journey of Chief Buffalo, a story inaccessible through both art and public space in Duluth; they will also feature contemporary imagery of Native people and our existence and connection to the land today.

Red, yellow, black and white, colors of the Anishinaabe medicine wheel are painted on the top ledges of the walls in accordance with the four cardinal directions. The colors will be visible on Google maps once the area is updated on the service as a “proclamation to the sky that we are still here.”

In between the two walls is an image of the “Symbolic Petition of the Chippewa Chiefs” pictograph painted along the bridge of the stairway.

“Chief Buffalo's legacy takes the form of a story, but also manifests in the existence of Anishinaabe people all throughout Minnesota today and our enjoyment of rights to hunt, fish, and participate in traditional activities,” Villiard said.

The mural was originally planned to have been finished in the summer of 2020 but was rescheduled due to COVID-19. 

Social Media

Project Contributors


THE BACK STORY: The Chief Buffalo Memorial mural project was an idea rooted in the vision of some of Chief Buffalo's eldest descendants - namely Robert Buffalo (Red Cliff Tribe Hereditary Chief) and Henry Buffalo Jr. - as well as the Duluth Indigenous Commission. It grew as a pilot project in 2019 through Zeitgeist Community and their efforts to improve the connections between Canal Park/The Lake Walk, the parks, and downtown Duluth. The project was well-received by the community and blessed in ceremony with a feast and community painting session at Gitchi-Ode Akiing - so much so that the Indigenous Commission worked to push through another iteration of the project, the completion of all remaining walls. The artists collaborating on the project are Moira Villiard, Michelle Defoe, Awanigiizhik Bruce, Sylvia Houle, and Mana Bear Bolton and her partner Conor Fairbanks. We had a powwow this year to celebrate the progress made this year on the project and hope to keep re-activating the space!


THE FUNDING: A project of this scale at full cost could easily have a budget of $100,000 -$200,000, and in a larger city I think it might have been possible to raise those funds. I think another issue that this project has brought to light is the lack of significant financial resources for large-scale artwork in Greater Minnesota. I actually received feedback on one of the grants that I didn't get through a Minnesota funder, which has motivated me ever since I read it: "cool murals. For me, not really groundbreaking approach or methodology". That's a word for word response on my application. The panelists were largely from major cities, so afterwards I guess I wasn't surprised that there didn't seem to be any understanding of how privileged that statement actually sounds coming from somebody who's maybe never worked in a place like Duluth or Greater MN. I think it outlined a bias that's relatively common with certain funders in our state, where artists who do community work are held to a standard that dictated by larger, more arts-privileged cities. A mural in LA or NYC might not seem like a groundbreaking activity, there's plenty of public art in those places. Even telling Indigenous stories or history might not be "groundbreaking" where those stories are already visible. But at one point or another, murals were groundbreaking tools in all of these major cities - they were methods of activism that pushed the limits of visibility and that opened the floor for actual arts systems to be created. We don't have that here (yet), we are just starting out and many community members, especially BIPOC folks, are trying to set things up in a good way. And I invite any major city panelist to try their luck at navigating the systems we do have in place.


THE GOOD STUFF: As many obstacles as we faced, there was also a huge amount to be grateful for in this process, and we're proceeding to next year with out heads held high. Can we talk about how gifted the team is? Or how amazing the community turnout has been? There's been days where the number of Indigenous people hanging out in the mural space has far outnumbered the number of tourists! We've had folks who are unsheltered and who sleep on parts of the Lake Walk come and hang out with us and offer feedback and encouragement for the project. We have regulars from all different backgrounds come back to visit, some of them visiting nearly every day. One of our frequent Ojibwe visitors calls the mural site his "temple", and tells us all the ways he finds healing in artwork that's coming to life (and also has offered critique!). We have a documentary that will hopefully be produced in the next year that will explore Chief Buffalo's legacy and the significance of these murals to the community by Indigenous filmmaker Sequoia Hauck. We had countless volunteers, as young as age 2 and as old as .... well, we don't ask age! lol But we've had both elders and children help us along the way. We have visions for reintroducing Indigenous plant life to the area. There's been grad photos taken on site, there's been school groups coming to learn about Chief Buffalo, there's been tourists from all over the world learning about Native American people for the first time, and emerging artists who've come to ask questions about the process. We have so much to be thankful for, and all of this -- all of this is groundbreaking in a space that was once without identity and quite unremarkable.


FUNDERS: The Chief Buffalo Mural Project is made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. Aspects of the project were also funded in part by the Anishinaabe Fund of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, as well as the Henry and Sarah Wheeler Historical Awareness Fund of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation.


Moira Villiard is a fiscal year 2021 recipient of a Creative Support for Individuals grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Portions of this activity were made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.


I was also selected as a Waterers Future Building award recipient this year, and you can bet that was also a fund I dipped into for this project. The Duluth Public Arts Commission also made a major financial contribution, which helped pay our artists. Our biggest contributor to credit, however, is the AICHO Galleries / American Indian Community Housing Organization through The Bush Foundation Community Creativity Cohort 2. Huge shoutout to them for the no-strings-attached support we received and for honoring the vision of this project in its entirety! Additionally, the Duluth Art Institute is sponsoring much of the 2022 completion of the walls.

Page by Suenary Philavanh

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Additional support from: Robert Buffalo and Buffalo descendants, Duluth Indigenous Commission, All Nations Indigenous Center, AIM Twin Ports Support Chapter, Shaina Brassard, IOBY, Duluth Public Arts Commission, and hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers.

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