Applause for Dakota Elders’ Leadership in Taking Down “Scaffold”; Questions Remain about Cultural Appropriation

Signs of anger and hurt were hung on the chain link fence around the Sculpture Garden during the controversy

An unacknowledged aspect of the controversy around the Walker Sculpture Garden’s Scaffold is the Dakota elders’ leadership in resolving the conflict.

Consider the context. All native people have lived with generations of shame and humiliation from the broader society, from Indian mascots to boarding schools and broken treaties.

In this context, the Walker begins to erect the massive Scaffold, depicting several historic gallows. The most prominent feature replicates the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862. Neither the Walker nor Sam Durant, the artist, thought to talk to Dakota leaders. The sculpture is not only a painful reminder of their worst moment in history, it also shows they are invisible to the broader community, powerless to affect these decisions.

That’s a heavy burden. Yes, there was anger and hurt in the Dakota community. But in the end, Dakota elders led a healing ceremony with all parties in the circle.

Some have praised Durant and the Walker for agreeing to mediation and ultimately the sculpture’s removal. Yes, Durant and the Walker did the right thing — but they were fixing problems of their own making.

In the typical narrative, the Dakota are portrayed as aggrieved victims. It needs to be stated clearly: the Dakota elders were exemplary leaders.  They spoke of bringing “positive energy” to the Garden. The Dakota had no institutional power. Their power and leadership came from their moral authority on this issue, which resonated with many of us in the community, both Native and non-Native peoples.

We will have to wait and see what emerges from the Dakota-Walker collaboration moving forward. Meanwhile, there remain important issues to reflect upon. One is how to talk about cultural appropriation, the other is removing the veil of the dominant narrative and acknowledging the leadership Dakota elders brought to the table. Continue reading

… And “Scaffold” Came Tumbling Down

A crowd gathered at the Walker Sculpture Garden for a Dakota healing ceremony.

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.”

Art Owen (Prairie Island) and Sheldon Wolfchild (Lower Sioux) spoke before the ceremony.

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. Continue reading

Will Walker Embrace Institutional Changes in the Wake of “Scaffold” Controversy?

Olga Viso, Executive Director of the Walker Art Center at the Wednesday news conference.

The Walker Art Center will look for ways to bring more diversity and perspective to its board and staff following the recent controversy over the Scaffold Sculpture, said Olga Viso, Walker’s executive director.

She made her comments at a Wednesday news conference announcing an agreement to remove the sculpture, part of a mediation between Dakota elders, the Walker, and the sculpture’s artist, Sam Durant. In her formal remarks, Viso said:

“We pledge to host forums for continued listening and learning. We will reach out to Native communities including Upper Sioux, Lower Sioux, Shakopee and Prairie Island nations who have asked for dialogue and continued dialogue …

We will help bridge gaps of understanding among staff, among our board, among our audiences. We will examine our institutional structures and work to make structural change, which will take time.

Later in the Q&A, she was asked to elaborate on what institutional changes she envisioned to bring more voices to the table. She gave a brief answer: “So talking about representation on the board, more representation on the staff,” she said, and creating forums and other opportunities “to forge more deep connections for consultations so this doesn’t happen again.” Continue reading

Please Attend Ceremonial Deconstruction of “Scaffold” at the Walker Sculpture Garden, Friday at 2 p.m.

A news conference at the Walker Art Center announcing the removal of the sculpture “Scaffold” was well attended by local media.

The controversial outdoor sculpture “Scaffold” will start being disassembled on Friday, according to a joint statement by Dakota elders, representatives of the Walker Art Center and the artist who created the work. It was part of a  mediation agreement, announced today.

The sculpture 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. Neither the artist nor the Walker thought to ask Dakota people for their reaction.  When the sculpture started going up, that reaction came fast and strong.

Please join the ceremonial start of the deconstruction, Friday at 2 p.m. at the Sculpture Garden. It is a large sculpture and it will take four days to remove it completely. The wood will be taken to the Fort Snelling area where there will be a ceremonial burning. That date is yet to be announced.

The Fort Snelling area has great significance to the Dakota people, with both positive and negative reasons. Fort Snelling sits at Bdote, the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, the area central to the Dakota origin story. It also is the site where Dakota women, children and elders were held during the winter of 1862-63 following the Dakota-U.S. War. Hundreds died there.

The artist, Sam Durant, has turned over all intellectual property rights to the sculpture to the Dakota people, and promised never to replicate it.

This is a first in a series of blogs on today’s news conference. For the full statement that came out of mediation, keep reading. Continue reading

After Dismantling a Sculpture in Wake of Protests, Walker Must Lead Effort to Dismantle Inequity

The Star Tribune just published a piece written by my friend David Cournoyer and I about the Walker Art Center’s controversial “Scaffold” sculpture and its decision to remove it. The article is headlined: After dismantling a sculpture in wake of protests, Walker must lead effort to dismantle inequity.

The piece looks beyond the specifics of the art and raises broader issues of equity that do figure in this debacle. Thank you for reading this and sharing and joining in what will be a long-term journey.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

It seems Walker Art Center did the right thing in deciding to dismantle an artistic composite of the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862. But it was a no-brainer. Protests are bad for business, and they were sure to swell unpleasantly at the popular Sculpture Garden’s June reopening.

How so many observers grasped the stupidity of positioning “Scaffold” as a child’s jungle gym — while no one at Walker did — is just one question. Now we’ll see whether Walker is willing to step from behind the cloak of artistic freedom, and institutional inscrutability, to really make things right.

Dismantling the structure is easy, but this moment demands more. Walker needs to lead Minnesota in a bigger challenge to dismantle inequity. It is time.

Click here for the full Op/Ed.

“Scaffold” Sculptor Apologizes to Dakota People

The “Scaffold” sculpture viewed from behind the Spoon and Cherry.

Sam Durant, the artist who made the controversial “Scaffold” sculpture, has issued an apology to the Dakota people.

The Walker Art Center bought the sculpture from Durant to include in its revamped Sculpture Garden, due to reopen in June. The artwork was a commentary on capital punishment, its defining feature a replica of the gallows that hung 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862 following the Dakota-U.S. War. The Walker did not include Dakota people at all in this process. When it started to be installed, it triggered shock and protest from Dakota people and their allies. The sculpture is going to be removed.

The story has made national headlines. The L.A. Times posted a story Saturday headlined: Sculpture of a gallows by L.A. artist in Minneapolis may be removed after Native American outcry.

Durant is coming to the Twin Cities to be part of discussions between the Walker Art Center and Dakota elders. His apology reads in part:

Scaffold opens the difficult histories of the racial dimension of the criminal justice system in the United States, ranging from lynchings to mass incarceration to capital punishment. In bringing these troubled and complex histories of national importance to the fore, it was my intention not to cause pain or suffering, but to speak against the continued marginalization of these stories and peoples, and to build awareness around their significance. …

I made Scaffold as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists. It has been my belief that white artists need to address issues of white supremacy and its institutional manifestations. Whites created the concept of race and have used it to maintain dominance for centuries, whites must be involved in its dismantling. However, your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people. I offer my deepest apologies for my thoughtlessness. I should have reached out to the Dakota community the moment I knew that the sculpture would be exhibited at the Walker Art Center in proximity to Mankato.

Chief Arvol Looking Horse’s Statement on Walker’s “Scaffold”: Walk Towards Peace … Take Down the Sculpture

U-WI-TA – TO COME TOGETHER

Han Mitakuyape, I am Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle for the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota Oyate.

It has been brought to my attention concerning the Walker Art Center displaying the structure of the Dakota 38 hanging “Scaffold.” We as the Great Sioux Nation, which is known as the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota Oyate, are greatly concerned. This is a genocide view of what has happened to our Nation, which is still happening as we speak, because any kind of creations carry energy, and in this case; can carry division and death energy.

For many years we have been riding horseback, walking and running to carry a message of healing to the site of the 38 Dakota plus two, where our relatives hung in Mankato, Minnesota. We are still healing from this tragedy, which was the largest execution in the United States of America. What we create now is a focus of Unity and healing the Sacred Hoop of who we are as a Nation.

Today across America there is a lot of racism building, in which we are trying to still maintain Peace. After great thought of this issue, I know that this man who created this structure has a good heart, but does not know any better. I am aware his understanding is different than our own culture, and in his view was trying to bring awareness. So now we have become aware of one another’s boundaries in what we create to memorialize our loved ones.

As Keeper of the Sacred Pipe, we have always known to walk toward Peace and harmony in recognizing who we are as Lakota, Dakota, Nakota Oyate. We know that this is the only way to stop those that choose to walk in that negative energy; they don’t know better in how our traditional way of life is maintained and have not had the privilege of learning our protocols. Don’t allow this structure to bring negative to our communities — we are already facing a lot together. When these issues happen, we must always remember to represent our relatives, those who hung onto one another’s hands to sing and to pray for us all, and for even those that were hanging them.

So, I would like to add my voice to take the death scaffold down as soon as possible, so we may live in Peace.
In the Sacred Hoop of Life, where there is no ending and no beginning…

Ana-h’opta po Hear my words!

Chief Arvol Looking Horse
May 29, 2017

Here is Chief Arvol Looking Horse’s statement as a PDF.

Walker Delays Sculpture Garden Reopening, Leaving Space for Mediation with Dakota Elders

This statement from Olga Viso, Walker Art Center Executive Director, and Jayne Miller, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Superintendent was released this afternoon:

Out of respect for the process of mediation and resolution that is yet to unfold, the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board announce today the official re-opening for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden will be postponed until Saturday, June 10, 2017. Both partners agree that this is the most appropriate course of action to honor the dialogue that is underway between Dakota Elders, the Walker, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and artist Sam Durant regarding the sculpture Scaffold in the Garden.

A private mediation with a group of Dakota Elders is planned for the morning of Wednesday, May 31, 2017, with leaders from the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, City of Minneapolis, and the artist and his representatives. In advance of this mediation, Dakota Elders will be meeting with a broader cross-section of the Dakota community on Tuesday evening. This meeting is being organized by Dakota Elders and will inform the mediation process.  …

Dakota Elders leading the mediation process have respectfully asked that others who feel allied in this endeavor, but who are not Dakota, or whom may represent other communities across the state and region, to please be patient and respect the process that is currently underway. There is concern from all parties involved in the mediation process that pre-emptive actions in advance of these discussions would be counterproductive.

A public statement at 2 pm on Wednesday, May 31, will provide an update on the status of the mediation.

Dakota Elders Call Dakota Community Meeting to Discuss Walker Art Center’s “Scaffold” Sculpture

DAKOTA OYATE
Dakota Elders Announcement

On Tuesday 7:00 PM May 30, 2017 all Dakota traditional spiritual elders are invited to meet to discuss how to respond to the “Scaffold” sculpture that is currently under construction by Walker Art Center on Minneapolis Park and Recreation Land in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The intent of the Elder meeting is to share the information about the structure, to hear a timely written update from the Walker Art Center, and to make decisions about the priorities for next steps for the structure, specifically:

  1. Elders’ wishes regarding the structure
  2. who will be in the working group to plan a ceremony
  3. how to involve the Dakota community including the youth as well as Native artists in this historic event, and future discussions of the important role that art plays in truth-telling
  4. which twelve Elders are available/willing to attend the first face to face meeting with the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the Minneapolis administrator and the artist, Sam Durant, on Wednesday May 31.

All Dakota are encouraged and invited to respond with their insights in this process. This is an opportunity for parents to engage the children in learning about their history and for the students and professions to use their position to help share our truth, our history. Because of the quick timing of this first meeting and the fact that many Dakota cannot travel to this meeting, you may send/share your response to an Elder who will carry that intention forward in prayer to the meeting.

This Elder meeting will be open to all Dakota elders on Tuesday May 30th 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm at All My Relations Gallery, 1414 Franklin Ave Minneapolis Minnesota. We welcome all Dakota who come with a good heart, with respect for the ancestors, the elders, our traditional ways and our Sacred sites for the opening prayer and announcements. No press please. This is only the first of many meetings to help create a process of healing and to help educate through Dakota truth-telling of our own history.

The next step will be the face-to-face meeting of Dakota spiritual and traditional elders with the related parties Wednesday morning 9:30 to 12:30 to discuss next steps, followed by a joint press announcement at 2 PM of any logistic decisions made. Recognizing that the presence of the sculpture is very volatile to our community, that timeliness and participation by all related parties is very important, the focus of this part of the mediation process will be discussing the logistics. Broader education for the staff and public will come later. The Walker Art Center and Park Board has agreed to push back the Grand Opening of the sculpture garden until Saturday June 10 to allow for more attention to this process and for good faith efforts at dialogue by all parties.

We call upon all Dakota to pray for wisdom and for healing. We request that all press wait for the joint announcement on Wednesday after our private mediation meeting rather than seeking individual statements from our community. We ask all non-Dakota allies to not take action on our behalf; please respectfully allow us space to conduct our process in our way and timing, that we may heal.

Pidamayayedo

Walker Art Center Will Remove Scaffold Sculpture, Dialogue with Dakota Elders to Proceed

This statement just in from Olga Viso, Executive Director of the Walker Art Center

Scaffold sculpture will be removed from new Sculpture Garden.

Because we are keenly aware of how important the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is to the community, city and state, we have been taking the public response over the last 24 hours very seriously.

The responses have overwhelmingly conveyed and expressed anger and sadness that Scaffold has caused the Dakota community and beyond.

As the Executive Director of the Walker, I regret the pain that this artwork has brought to the Dakota community and others.

Prompted by the outpouring of community feedback, the artist Sam Durant is open to many outcomes including the removal of the sculpture.  He has told me, “It’s just wood and metal – nothing compared to the lives and histories of the Dakota people.”

I am in agreement with the artist that the best way to move forward is to have Scaffold dismantled in some manner and to listen and learn from the Elders.  The details of how and when will be determined by Traditional Spiritual Dakota Elders at a meeting scheduled with the Walker and the artist on Wednesday, May 31 with the support of a mediator selected by the Elders.  This is the first step in a long process of healing.

We will continue listening and communicating to the public as plans develop in partnership with the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board.