A day before what was to have been the celebrated grand re-opening of the Minneapolis Scuplture Garden, Dakota elders will oversee the dismantling of a painfully controversial piece of artwork held within it that ignited onsite protests and a flood of social media criticism.
At an afternoon press conference Wednesday, May 31, it was announced in the Star Tribune that on Friday, June 2, Dakota elders will oversee the dismantling of a two-story artwork called “Scaffold,” a recreation of multiple historic gallows including that on which 38 Dakota men were hanged in an 1862 mass execution in Mankato, Minnesota. A Native-owned construction company is donating it services to begin taking it apart Friday afternoon; the dismantling will take about four days.
At a later time, the structure will be reassembled and burned in the Fort Snelling area.
That’s exactly what former Lower Sioux tribal chairman and documentary filmmaker Sheldon P. Wolfchild envisioned. He is one of the dozen elders who met for three hours on May 31 with representatives of the Walker Art Center, the city government, the Parks and Recreation Board, “Scaffold” artist Sam Durant and mediator Stephanie Hope Smith.
“If it was up to me,” Wolfchild said, “I would like to see when that’s taken down, that it’s re-put up by Fort Snelling, then have a ceremony to remember those who were hung … then burn that structure in effigy to make a statement.”
The point of burning the remade gallows near Fort Snelling would be significant because that is where hundreds of Dakota people were held prisoner after the two-month long violence near Mankato and New Ulm in 1862, followed by forced removal down the Mississippi River and eventually back up and into South Dakota, separating many communities from their ancestral lands. For Wolfchild, the fort holds particular pain because it is where his ancestor, Medicine Bottle, was hanged along with Little Six; they are the two killed after the mass execution and remembered as the Dakota 38 + 2.
Both artist Durant and Walker Executive Director Olga Viso have apologized for the pain caused by the controversial display of the two-story artwork, commissioned in 2012 for an art festival in Germany. At the press conference, Durant further apologized and has committed not to create the gallows again, according to the Star Tribune, which quoted him as saying: “I’ve done historical and archival research, but I had not met with the people who have been living with this history for 500 years. That was a powerful and moving experience. I just want to apologize for the trauma and suffering that my work has caused in the community. I would say that what we have come together here and negotiated is a path forward and hopefully a path of healing, especially for the Dakota community, and also for building bridges between mainstream, white, Euro-American society and the Native American indigenous communities nationally and on this continent.”
“Scaffold” was to be one of 18 new pieces added to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, an 11-acre joint effort between the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board within the 19-acre Walker campus. The sculpture garden was to have a grand re-opening Saturday, June 3 to unveil the new works but that has been delayed until June 10.
Durant’s art has touched on Native American history before and from 2002 to 2003 he worked with Heart of the Earth Survival School and Four Directions Charter School in Minneapolis on the Garden Project “to record the voices, thoughts, and rhythms of Native American youths.” In 2014 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he mounted an exhibition called “Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington, D.C.” that congregated around a representation of the D.C. reflection pool replicas of actual monuments erected around the country for Natives and non-Natives killed during the so-called “Indian Wars.”
Before the Wednesday morning meeting, Durant watched a documentary produced and direct by Wolfchild through his Morton, Minnesota, production company, 38 Plus 2 Productions to get a better understanding of the Dakota history and the removal of hundreds of Dakota people from their ancestral Minnesota lands.
“The Indian System,” outlining the causes and effects of the U.S.-Dakota War, is one of the films Wolfchild created to help bring a Dakota and Native perspective to history. He had to enlist the aid of state legislators to pressure the Minnesota Historical Society to do a screening of it. “I’ve had a difficult time showing that film,” he said.
He hopes his documentaries might be used to help educate the Walker staff, too. “They have to go back 500 years. They haven’t been taught that in their educational system.”
Wolfchild remains optimistic about moving forward with education and reconciliation. He understands, though, the frustration and impatience expressed by Native young people, especially in connection with this artwork and the need to explain to non-Natives repeatedly about history and generational trauma within the Native community.
“Because our younger people, they’re rightfully angry, but they have to understand protocol,” he said. “How do we forgive the unforgiveable, that’s the challenge.”
Tradition has helped him personally, Wolfchild continued. “Through our ceremonies and our belief systems, that’s what kept me going, our ceremonies. … That’s how we have to deal with this matter. … We’re dealing with a sacred process here. … We have to respect those who were hung and remember how they prayed for us. We have to do it in that manner as well. … We have to focus on the dignity of what they stood for and make that the center of our strength.
“There’s a lot of hope here,” Wolfchild said of the elder gathering. “We’re going to be able to educate the people of Minnesota again. … This is opening the doors for more education.”