Several hundred people today attended a Dakota-led healing ceremony at the Walker Sculpture Garden to mark the beginning of the deconstruction of “Scaffold.”
The event began outside the temporary chain link fence surrounding the Sculpture Garden. Speakers included Art Owen of the Prairie Island Dakota Community and Sheldon Wolfchild of the Lower Sioux Indian Community.
“This is a negative energy up here that we are feeling at this moment,” Wolfchild said. “The spiritual elders have said the sooner we take down the scaffold, the sooner we get rid of negative energy.”
Wolfchild said Scaffold was a symbol of domination and dehumanization that has affected all First Nations peoples across the country. “So this symbol of taking down negative energy that was brought here — to justify the means of taking our original land and our spiritual belief system — will now end.”
Scaffold was to be part of the upcoming Grand Reopening of the Sculpture Garden, but it was quickly engulfed in controversy. The artwork depicts several historic gallows, most prominently the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862. It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Neither the artist nor the Walker thought to ask Dakota people for their reaction. When the sculpture started going up, that reaction came fast. The Walker and the artist Sam Durant have both issued public apologies for not being aware of how this would affect the Dakota community.
Straight Line Construction, a Native-owned business, volunteered to do the deconstruction. Louis Peters of Lower Sioux spoke at today’s ceremony on behalf of the crew: “The main thing I need to communicate is how glad and grateful we are to have our community here, to have all of you people here, for your prayers and your support as we start this process.”
Stephanie Hope Smith, the neutral mediator in this process, gave a brief update, saying today’s ceremony would be the last “media moment” at the Walker related to Scaffold. “This is closure,” she said.
The chain link fence was opened so people could gather next the sculpture for a “no cameras, no recording” prayer and sacred ceremony led by Owen. When it finished, the chain saws started.
People Came for Many Reasons
The Walker has taken a lot of heat — and rightfully so — for its failure to see how this sculpture would affect Dakota people. But as we have written before, this issue is not unique to Walker. Institutional blindness to issues of equity and powersharing with oppressed communities is common.
For those new to this blog, Healing Minnesota Stories is an initiative of the Saint Paul Interfaith Network. We are an effort to create dialogue, understanding and healing between Native and non-Native peoples, particularly those non-Native people who are a part of a religious community. Christian churches in particular have played a significant role in the trauma inflicted on Native peoples, both for its silence around the theft of Native lands and in its active engagement in boarding schools that deprived Native Americans of their customs, languages, and religious beliefs.
Just as this was a moment of reflection for the Walker, so it was for people who came from an understanding of the role that churches have played in Native historical trauma.
Among those attending were Methodist ministers Bruce Forbes and Nancy Victorin-Vangerud. Forbes also is a professor of religious studies at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. He did his doctoral dissertation on cross cultural relations and the Christian missions to the Dakota between the 1830s to 1862.
Forbes took one of his classes to Mankato to the site of the 1862 hanging. They stood near that spot and read an historic newspaper account of the hanging. Everyone cried, he said.
“I am non Indian. I have tried to be an advocate in my classroom without trying to speak for people that I am not. I wanted to be here for this.”
Victorin-Vangerud is the Chaplain and Director of the Wesley Center at Hamline University (and a friend of Healing Minnesota Stories).
“I am here today because my heart is so heavy and breaking, as my community, the white Christian Minnesotans, are coming to realize the kind of legacy and participation we have had in the historical trauma of the First Peoples in this land,” she said. “I want to bear witness to the call of my faith to restore right relations where we have harmed people and to be on a path that continues to seek respect and dignity and mutual understanding, and a new day of peace that I hope will be possible.”
Rev. Karen Hering, a consulting literary minister with Unity Unitarian in St. Paul, said she found the event both moving and challenging. “Just looking at this sculpture makes me want to weep,” she said. “I am really grateful for the ceremony because I feel like it gives us one example of an honorable, dignified way to approach the many things that need to be dismantled, the physical and things that are still invisible.”
For Patrice Koelsch Clark this event was part of a daily struggle. “I came here because as a Buddhist every single day I say I undertake the training not to take that which is not freely given to me,” she said. “Every day, I walk on land that was not freely given on a privilege that was not extended to me. I feel this is such an injustice that it was really important to come and witness the taking down of a terrible, terrible symbol. It was such a beautiful, peaceful ceremony about healing.”
For the Dakota and other Native peoples who came, it was deeply personal.
Sharon Lennartson, Chairwoman of the Mendota Mdewakanton Tribal Community, put it succinctly: “It is a travesty, she said. “This brings back bad memories of the 38 men that were hung. And we don’t need memories of that constantly thrown in our face.”
Some people felt a connection to their own family history. Mary Jane LaVigne belongs to a Dakota Language Roundtable and is a longtime Minnesotan. “My ancestors were in Minnesota,” she said. “They lived on Dakota land. They lived near the Dakota, they wrote about living near the Dakota. I feel like this is partly my story as well.”
For other people like Naeem Hanks, this was a brand new issue. “I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and rarely came across any sort of Native American culture,” he said. “I just moved to Minneapolis a week ago and am surprised it is such a big political event.”
So to come back full circle, this isn’t just about the Walker. It is about our religious institutions. It is about our educational institutions. It is about all of us.
Art Critics Show Support for Removing Scaffold
As a Post Script, it was interesting to read a Star Tribune piece that showed broad support from art critics from around the country to remove the sculpture. If you haven’t read it, check it out here.
Chris Kraus, a writer and critic from Los Angeles offered this:
People talk about the “rights” of artists to address all things, but the gallows piece made me keep thinking of an analogy … what if a gentile artist in post-World War II New York decided to create an installation recreating the showers at Dachau at MOMA? There would have been absolute outrage … people don’t want to be reminded of their own or their ancestors’ victimage, which itself carries shame — particularly by an outsider, and within a community that isn’t their own. Any “empathy” or “education” in response to the Holocaust by non-Jews would have been, and still would be, enormously resented. Why is this response considered reasonable in this case, but not in others?