Dakota elders met privately in Sisseton, S.D., all day Sunday to talk about the fate of the wood from the dismantled “Scaffold” sculpture.
The work by artist Sam Durant, which was to be part of the renovated Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center until protests prompted its withdrawal, was taken down in a Dakota-led ceremony June 2. The wood has been in storage in an undisclosed location in the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board facility since June 7.
The goal of Sunday’s meeting was not necessarily to reach a resolution, as there were not any “set expectation[s] regarding timing or process,” mediator Stephanie Hope Smith said via e-mail. The elders “will meet and then react and process as they need to.”
Dakota members from four federally recognized tribes in Minnesota and others from South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and Canada were invited to take part in the meeting. From Minnesota, Dakota representatives from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux, Lower Sioux and Upper Sioux communities attended. Members of the Prairie Island Indian Community, the fourth of the federally recognized tribes in Minnesota, did not attend, according to a representative for the community.
“Scaffold” was intended to represent seven gallows used in U.S. executions, including one from the 1862 hangings of 38 Dakota men. Durant said he had hoped it would inspire conversations about capital punishment and institutionalized racism, but American Indians and their supporters denounced the work as an insensitive and unwelcome reminder of a dark period in their history that was highly inappropriate for a public sculpture garden visited by many families and children.
Protests broke out the afternoon of May 26 following an open letter that Walker Executive Director Olga Viso penned to the Circle, an Indian newspaper based in St. Paul. In the letter she regretted that she did not “anticipate how the work would be received in Minnesota, especially by Native audiences.” She stated then that she “should have engaged leaders in the Dakota and broader Native communities in advance of the work’s siting” and that she apologized for “any pain and disappointment that the sculpture might elicit.”
The next day, May 28, the Walker announced that it would remove “Scaffold.” That conclusion was followed by a meeting on May 31 among Dakota tribal elders, Durant, Viso and Minneapolis city leaders. Durant then transferred all intellectual property rights to the Dakota people and promised never to re-create the gallows. The Walker promised to never host the structure.
An early declaration that the sculpture’s materials would be burned was put aside after some from the Dakota community and others objected. It remains unclear if burning is still a possibility.
A painful history
Like much of southern Minnesota, the land the Walker sits on was once Dakota territory.
In 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. It followed the U.S.-Dakota War, which broke out when some Dakota took up arms after being forced onto reservations and cheated out of money they were owed. Over its six weeks, the war cost the lives of an estimated 600 white settlers and soldiers and 100 Dakota warriors. In hasty trials, 303 warriors were sentenced to death for accusations of murder and rape. President Abraham Lincoln commuted most of those sentences. Another 160 to 300 Dakota men, women and children subsequently died at Fort Snelling of malnutrition and disease.
After the war, treaties were revoked and the Dakota were removed from Minnesota. White settlers would remake the land, naming it Minnesota, a Dakota word.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Carolina Miranda earlier this month, Durant talked about the controversy.
“So the Dakota people basically saw something that looked like a monument to their massacre,” he said. “Mankato is burned into their consciousness. It’s not abstract. As one person said to me, ‘That’s a killing machine.’ Then it turns out that the garden is located on [historic] Dakota land. So you couldn’t have a better test case of white ignorance in one place.”