Even before the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden reopens to the public, the Walker Art Center has offered to dismantle one of the pieces. Los Angeles-based artist Sam Durant’s piece “Scaffold,” modeled after seven historical public execution sites, met with protests from people who said the piece is insensitive to Native American history.
The architecture incorporates the gallows from the executions of 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862.
“As soon as you see it, you just see our ancestors hanging up there. It just sends a chill in your body,” said Sam Wounded Knee.
Wounded Knee and others have protested the sculpture at Bryant Avenue South and Kenwood Parkway since Friday. Signs cover the fence with statements including: “High art has hit a new low,” “Take it down” and “Our genocide is NOT your art.”
“They’re honoring us by erecting the very gallows that hung us,” said Sue Goodstar. “…It’s like instant PTSD.”
Goodstar said she plans to remain at the Walker until the sculpture is taken down, preferably burned onsite.
“We were at Standing Rock for seven months. A few weeks here is nothing,” she said.
The Walker Art Center announced that it will postpone the Sculpture Garden’s opening date from June 3 to June 10 to give staff time to meet with Native American elders.
Walker Art Center Executive Director Olga Viso said in a statement that she didn’t anticipate how the work would be received by Native audiences, and she’s willing to dismantle the structure. She said Durant is also open to removal, saying: “It’s just wood and metal — nothing compared to the lives and histories of the Dakota people.”
Viso said she anticipated a discussion about the nation’s use of capital punishment, and she regrets the pain that the sculpture has caused.
“Durant’s sculpture raises complex questions about how contentious moments in history are remembered. It raises deeper questions still about how, why, by whom, and for whom. As an institution that champions the work of living artists, we also champion the freedom of expression extended to artists and audiences alike,” she said. “We recognize, however, that the siting of ‘Scaffold’ in our state, on a site that is only a short distance from Mankato, raises unique concerns. We recognize the decision to exhibit this work might cause some to question the Walker’s sensitivity to Native audiences and audiences in Minnesota more familiar with this dark history.”
Durant said in a statement the sculpture is “neither memorial nor monument,” and said he made a “grave miscalculation” in how his work would be received.
“My work was created with the idea of creating a zone of discomfort for whites, your protests have now created a zone of discomfort for me,” he said. “In my attempt to raise awareness I have learned something profound and I thank you for that.”
Durant previously said in a film by Gavin Turnbull that the piece might look like a jungle gym to kids. He said visitors can explore the line between childhood and the final points of life.
“You don’t usually get to stand on top of an artwork and have a conversation,” he said.
According to the Walker, the piece also draws from executions including abolitionist John Brown in 1859; the Lincoln Conspirators in 1865; the Haymarket Martyrs in 1886 that followed a labor uprising and bombing in Chicago; Rainey Bethea in 1936, which was the last legal public execution in U.S. history; Billy Bailey in 1996, the last execution by hanging in the U.S.; and Saddam Hussein in 2006.
“Cultural appropriation is a huge issue for Native people,” said artist Graci Horne. She referenced the Washington Redskins, Crazy Horse malt liquor and artwork by Scott Seekins that inserts himself into the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
Horne said it was painful to see a sculpture like this at the Walker, which recently hosted an indigenous filmmaker series, and where she participated in a panel discussion about funding for artists of color.
When the Science Museum showcased a Christopher Columbus exhibit in 1992, Horne said the result was a Native adviser on the board. Something similar should happen here, she said.
“I don’t feel like sorry is good enough,” she said.
She created the website notart38plus2.com in recent days to detail the Mankato history.
“People still don’t know what happened,” Horne said. “They still don’t know about the war, they still don’t know about the 38 Dakota and two chiefs that were killed.”
According to the Minnesota Historical Society: In the aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, a commission of military officers tried and sentenced more than 300 prisoners to death. University of Minnesota Associate Professor Carol Chomsky said evidence was sparse, the tribunal was biased, the defendants had no representation, and no one recognized them as part of a sovereign nation that had surrendered. The number sentenced to hang decreased after consultation with President Abraham Lincoln, who ordered the number trimmed to those who had participated in rape or massacres of civilians. Before 4,000 spectators, 38 men sentenced to death held hands and sang a Dakota song until a rope that held the platform was cut.
Chief Arvol Looking Horse said in a May 29 letter he would like to see the scaffold taken down as soon as possible, so people may live in peace.
“For many years we have been riding horseback, walking and running to carry a message of healing to the site of the 38 Dakota plus two, where our relatives hung in Mankato, Minnesota,” he wrote. “We are still healing from this tragedy, which was the largest execution in the United States of America. … After great thought of this issue, I know that this man who created this structure has a good heart, but does not know any better. I am aware his understanding is different than our own culture, and in his view was trying to bring awareness. So now we have become aware of one another’s boundaries in what we create to memorialize our loved ones.”