Dakota Elders to Walker Art Center: Tear Down That Scaffold

Scaffold sculpture at the Sculpture Garden.

Dakota elders are asking the Walker Art Center to remove the new “Scaffold” sculpture from its soon-to-be reopened sculpture garden, according to an email from Graci Horne, who is both Dakota and Hunkpapa Lakota.

This is a sculpture seen from two vastly different world views.

To Horne and other Dakota, this is about cultural appropriation. The artist, Sam Durant, is white. This is about a white artist making money off of a story that is not his to tell. This is about the Dakota people having been left out of the conversation altogether.

To Olga Viso, the Walker Art Center’s Executive Director, the sculpture is a broader commentary on capital punishment. “I see it as a white artist who is looking at white power structures and systems of control that have subjugated nations and peoples throughout our history,” she said in a phone interview with Healing Minnesota Stories.

Sketch of the gallows from the mass hanging of Dakota men in Mankato in 1862 (Wikimedia Commons)

The sculpture is as big as a two story house. It depicts gallows from seven different hangings, most prominently the mass hanging of 38 Dakota men following the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. Other gallows include the replicas from the hangings of John Brown, Saddam Hussein and the 1926 hanging of Rainey Bethea, a 26-year-old black man hung in 1926 in Owensboro, Kentucky, the last U.S. public hanging. The gallows from the mass hanging of the Dakota 38 is the most visible part. It is the sculpture’s exterior into which the other gallows are nested.

Viso has published an apology for not including Dakota people in this process. She has promised to meet with members of the Dakota community. That process is still unfolding.

In the meantime, protests at the Sculpture Garden are just getting started.Protest Protocol

I went to the Walker to see the sculpture myself and take a few pictures. The entire Garden is under renovation and fenced off. I met Horne standing at the chain link fence nearest the Scaffold sculpture. Her relatives include Hepinkpa, who was one of the Dakota 38 hung in Mankato in 1862, she said. Louis LaBelle, who was jailed after the war, is also a relative.

“All I really feel is pain and historical trauma,” she said. “This is how he [Hepinkpa] must have felt when he was hung.”

Horne is helping to organize a community response. She sent a copy of an email being circulated among people who are concerned about this issue. It reads in part:

A group of Elders have been decided upon as they are relatives that reflect the Dakota Oyate at large. Our Dakota Elders have kept our stories alive the longest, therefore they are speaking on our behalf….

The Elders have requested a time to sit down the Director Olga Viso in the next few days. They are asking Walker Art Center to take down the sculpture …

At this time, the Elders have asked the Native Community and Ally Communities for a peaceful and prayerful demonstration. … This is a large concern as they do not want anyone to get hurt by getting targeted for violence.

The email outlines what kind of support requested from both the Native communities and allies. It gives the following protocols for Native people:

  • Peaceful demonstration
  • No use of profanity as children and Elders are present at the site
  • Keep alert always
  • Watch out for each other and older ones call out inappropriate behavior
  • Inform the public (many Non-Native people do not know our history. They are coming to learn and be informed. This is everyone’s responsibility, so if you are there, please visually look for cues of visitors who may want to ask questions)
  • Stay in prayer
  • Don’t be afraid to tell someone to act right
  • No Drugs, Alcohol or weapons

The request to allies is similar. In addition: ask if you don’t understand protocols, follow safety protocols, and do not use profanity or violence as it does not reflect the Dakota Oyate.

If you interested in getting on an email list to support this work, send your request to: NotArt38plus2@gmail.com

In addition, Horne put out a request for art supplies in the form of canvas drop cloths that are sold in places like Home Depot, we also need spray paint and zip ties.

The Community Responds

Al Gross, barista at Pow Wow Grounds coffee,  said people had been talking a lot about the sculpture. “It’s highly offensive,” he said. “It’s always one step forward, two steps back.”

Another new Sculpture Garden addition.

Comments hit social media. Protest signs have gone up on on the chain link fence guarding the Sculpture Garden during renovation. Examples included: “Not Art 38+2”  “Not Your Story” and “Respect Dakota People,” according to a photo on this Facebook post.

Joseph Finley posted on his Facebook page: “Olga Viso will definitely need the help of all our Native people to extricate herself from this major blunder…” David Huckfelt posted on his page: “Wow. The Walker puts up a sculpture inspired by the scaffolds used to hang 38 Native Dakota men in the largest mass execution in American history … for fighting to defend their families & homeland… next to a giant spoon & a blue rooster * A little light-hearted taste of genocide with your mini-golf & cat videos.”

The Walker Responds

The Walker worked Friday to figure out how to respond to the growing criticism. Viso’s apology read in part:

As director of the Walker, I regret that I did not better anticipate how the work would be received in Minnesota, especially by Native audiences. I should have engaged leaders in the Dakota and broader Native communities in advance of the work’s siting, and I apologize for any pain and disappointment that the sculpture might elicit.

The Walker set up a site where people can provide feedback: feedback@walkerart.org.

Horne is concerned that the Walker would not consider removing the sculpture because undoubtedly it paid a lot of money for it. In the interview with Viso, I asked how much the sculpture cost, but she said that kind of information was not something the Center made public.

Asked if the Walker was open to consider removing the sculpture for the garden, Viso said:

We are in this listening period and we really want to learn. We have not made any determination around that question.

It is important to say as a contemporary arts institution, as a museum, we are about learning and educating … So the idea of destroying art or censoring art is a very challenging topic for a contemporary arts institution …. At the same time, I can respect and appreciate and understand that there is a reference to this work that is an incredibly dark moment in our history that is painful to people. … Context does matter. I have to weigh both of those concerns.

Viso has been in conversation with the artist, Durant, about the controversy:

He is working on an artist statement, I would rather share that when we have that. He very much supports the conversations, the range of expressions of concern, and that people are protesting. He wants to support and listen in the same way.

Dakota elders want the opportunity to meet with Durant face to face, according to Horne’s email. Asked whether Durant was coming to town to be part of those conversations, Viso said she did not know at this point.

This is the first in a series on this issue. More updates coming.

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