Worlds collide over time. Injustice is timeless. One of art’s many functions is to portray human events in ways that help us gain deeper insight into who we are and what we understand.
Native Americans have a heritage and a story that has not been honestly portrayed. One part of their story is the suffering and injustice they endured in the past, and still experience today. I was raised and educated in Minnesota, and never in 16 years of schooling was I remotely made aware of the depth of Minnesota’s Native American heritage.
For me, Minnesota started with French explorers followed by European settlement and application for statehood. Fort Snelling was where you went on Memorial Day to see the cannon fired. That constituted early Minnesota history.
I believe the “Scaffold” sculpture should remain at the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden. The reason goes beyond any white person’s desire to earn absolution. It is more important than that. This is art providing a vision and an experience that calls upon our common humanity through its imagery and honesty.
Public hangings, and the gallows that were the intruments, are something no one living in America today has seen. “Scaffold” carries special meaning for Minnesotans — Native American and immigrant alike. At one level, it demonstrates that, historically, Minnesotans were no different from Germans in the 1930s or Americans in the Deep South well into most of the 20th century. By confronting art that allows us to acknowledge and feel that past and its undeniable pain, we may prevent such events from being repeated or morphing into more subtle forms of injustice.
Though it pains Native Americans to have this memory brought back, the spirits of the victimized now have a voice and can help protect Native Americans from continued abuse. “Scaffold” also goes beyond the Native American experience, speaking for other times and other groups who have been victims of prejudice and genocide.
“Scaffold” is sacred art and should be dedicated by Native Americans and witnessed by all Minnesotans. “Scaffold” belongs in Minnesota, in the state where the largest public execution in American history took place. If not Minnesota, then where?
It now belongs to the collective consciousness of all Minnesotans, Native and immigrant.
No group, not even victims who have suffered, are entitled to censor art. If free artistic expression becomes the next victim of these past atrocities, then even more has been lost than human life. An art garden is not a horticultural club or lakeside pathway. If the only reason the Walker takes down “Scaffold” is a protest over art that is too strong, then its local and international reputation is irreparably damaged.
Let’s not deprive Minnesotans of profound art and truthful education.
Timothy S. O’Malley lives in Plymouth.