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