In just a few days, the gallows-like sculpture will be a pile of chopped wood.
After an hour of prayer and song, the revving of chain saws pierced the air at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden Friday afternoon, almost one week to the day that the controversy over “Scaffold” began.
Construction workers started at the top of the structure, chopping the timbers off in chunks, the smell of fresh-cut wood mingling with burning sage and tobacco as the drum circle and chants rang out. The crowd whooped with joy.
“With each board that came down, the harder I cried. With each song that was sung, the harder I cried,” said Sue GoodStar, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton of South Dakota who is a member of the Dakota elders council. She shouted to one worker: “ ‘Smile, Brian. Throw it like you mean it!’ And he went wham! I’ve never been so overjoyed, so relieved, and so proud ever in my life as when that first board came out. And it was like, yeah, that's real.”
A Dakota elders council got the Walker Art Center and artist Sam Durant to agree to the dismantling of the two-story-high steel-and-metal structure, modeled in part on the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862, the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
“Scaffold” was to have been among 16 new works in the renovated garden. Now the wood will be piled and removed for a ceremonial burning near Fort Snelling, presumably next week, though no timetable has been announced.
The crew, from Straight Line Construction of Lower Sioux, are descendants either of the 38 men or two other Dakota warriors hung at Fort Snelling in 1865. Workers from PCL Construction, in Burnsville, stood by to provide assistance.
The ceremony began around 2 p.m., as Art Owen of the Prairie Island Dakota community looked out at a crowd of at least 300 people.
“I would like to offer our thank you to everyone who made this possible,” he said as church bells clanged in the background. “For some of our families this is nothing new. As Dakota people we are very resilient.”
Owen said prayers as the crowd watched solemnly.
Jack Seiji Rios-Shibata held a bowl of tobacco, an offering to the workers. People were allowed to take small bits or handfuls.
Walker Executive Director Olga Viso, Deputy Director David Galligan and Minneapolis Park Board Superintendent Jayne Miller stood alongside a group of elders, holding tobacco in their palms. The artist was not present for the dismantling.
“It was supposed to be art,” said one woman, dismayed, as she spoke on the phone after the sawing began. People in the crowd seemed in agreement that the piece was not art, but a reminder of death and genocide, as the Dakota contend.
Durant’s work drew objections after Viso belatedly reached out to Indian elders late last week.
“We didn’t hear about this until last Thursday,” said Sheldon Wolfchild in an interview before the ceremony. Wolfchild, a filmmaker from the Lower Sioux Agency northwest of Mankato, was among a group of elders who determined the sculpture’s fate in a meeting Wednesday with Viso and Minneapolis officials. “We had five days to organize and bring our spiritual leaders together,” he said.
Wolfchild later addressed the ceremony: “We represent the spirit of good feelings. ... This symbol of taking down negative energy to use in a negative way to justify ways of taking our land and spiritual belief system will now end. Remember in a good way what this historical truth has brought us. We begin to dismantle negativity. When we take this down, our children will not have to see this image again.”
As part of the agreement, the Walker must discuss any future Native-related art with Dakota or Ojibwe councils.
Work is expected to take four days, although the concrete pad poured for the structure may remain longer — perhaps into the June 10 reopening of the Sculpture Garden, which was postponed a week because of the controversy.