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After a Dakota Ceremony, Dismantling of Controversial Sculpture Begins in Minneapolis

On Friday, Dakota elders led a ceremony that included a blessing for construction workers who then started to take apart Sam Durant’s controversial installation “Scaffold.”

Signs near the site of Sam Durant's "Scaffold" (2012) as workers dismantled the sculpture on Friday (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Signs near the site of Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” (2012) as workers dismantled the sculpture on Friday (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

MINNEAPOLIS — The Walker Art Center originally planned to open the renovated Minneapolis Sculpture Garden over the weekend, but instead the garden, a partnership between the museum and the city’s Park and Recreation Board, became a site of prayer and demolition. At 2pm on Friday, elders from the Dakota community led a ceremony of healing and blessing of construction workers, who subsequently began dismantling Sam Durant’s imposing sculpture “Scaffold” (2012).

As Hyperallergic reported previously, criticism of the sculpture erupted on May 26 in response to an open letter by Walker Director Olga Viso, in which she expressed regret for not anticipating how the work would be received in Minnesota, especially by Native audiences. A comment about capital punishment, Durant’s sculpture employs imagery from seven historical gallows used in hanging executions sanctioned by the US government. Its reference to the structure used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota at the end of the US-Dakota War in 1862 struck a chord for the local native community, and particularly for Dakota people.

Sam Durant's "Scaffold" before Friday's ceremony
Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” before Friday’s ceremony

“The 38 Dakota were brutally executed by the US government, with virtually no due process rights afforded them, in a manner that is more vigilante justice than justice, based upon the rule of law and basic human rights,” said Cheyanne St. John, a Lower Sioux Indian Community Tribal Historical Preservation Officer, in a statement presented at a press conference at the Walker last week. “These men fought a war instigated by a series of broken treaty promises, perpetuated by the US that led to starvation and desperation for our ancestors.”

In addition to the 38 men executed in Mankato, protesters have been using the phrase “38 + 2” as a way to include two additional men who were hung later at Fort Snelling, which was the site of a concentration camp that held Dakota survivors of the war before most of them were banished from the state. Calling those past events a painful part of the history of the Dakota people, St. John said that they “were not something to be depicted in a sculpture garden next to a giant rooster or a spoon with a cherry.”

A Ceremony of Healing

The dismantling of “Scaffold” began after a ceremony on Friday. Prior to the ceremony, Dakota elders Art Owen and Sheldon Wolfchild spoke to press and members of the public, describing how the ceremony was meant to offer healing and also protection for the workers who would be taking down the sculpture. According to neutral mediator Stephanie Hope Smith, the construction workers were from the Native construction company Straight Line Construction.

Dakota drummers perform before Friday's ceremony at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
Dakota drummers perform before Friday’s ceremony at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

According to Rory Wakemup, the director for the local Native gallery All My Relations, Straight Line is owned by Louis Peters of Lower Sioux. “He and all his employees are descendants of the 38 + 2,” Wakemup said, adding that other construction workers from PCL Construction would also be on call for backup and support.

Describing the ceremony that was about to take place, Art Owen, from Prairie Island Indian Community, said the ceremony would help heal some of the wounds that had been reopened as a result of the sculpture’s installation. “This has opened up some doors that we have been traumatized by over the years,” Owen said. “For some of our families this is nothing new. Dakota people are very resilient people. We have done so much to get here. So on behalf of the Dakota elders here, there are things that have to be said and have to be done to close this door.”

“We are asked to say that this is a negative energy that we are feeling at this moment,” said Sheldon Wolfchild, a descendent of the Dakota 38 + 2. “In our belief system, we do not practice in negative energy. It’s all positive. And so the spiritual elders have said the sooner we remove the scaffold, the sooner we get rid of negative energy.”

Dakota elders speak at Friday's ceremony at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
Dakota elders speak at Friday’s ceremony at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

Friday’s ceremony involved burning sage and an offering of loose tobacco, which was handed out to the elders and Dakota community who were in an enclosed area near the statue, and to the larger group of people who had come to observe. After leading a prayer of the four directions (where people were invited to face north, south, east, and west), Owen asked people to return the tobacco with their prayers, and said it would be taken to Bear Butte, South Dakota, as an offering of healing and also as a prayer for the workers removing “Scaffold.”

Following the ceremony, Sue Goodstar, an elder Dakota woman who has been involved in meetings about the sculpture’s fate, told reporters she had not believed “Scaffold” would actually come down until she heard the sound of the first chainsaw. “After that, it was uncontrollable tears,” she said. Then, when one of the workers threw the first board down to the ground, Goodstar said she felt herself crying. “With each song that was [sung], the harder I cried,” she said. “I’ve never been so overjoyed, so relieved, and so proud ever in my life as when that first board came out.”

Scrambling to Fix a Mistake

After realizing its misstep, the Walker announced last week that the sculpture would be removed and that mediation with Dakota communities would take place. A statement posted on the museum’s website states that the wood from the sculpture will be taken to the Fort Snelling area to be ceremonially burned.

However, because the Dakota are an exiled community, some live in other areas and states, including South Dakota, and all of those groups need to be consulted too about the plan for what will happen next. Additionally, there are regulatory challenges due to Fort Snelling’s location very near the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport.

According to public relations manager Jessica Kohen of the Minnesota Historical Society, which operates Fort Snelling, the various parties will meet this week to figure out the next steps. However, who will be present at those meetings has not been finalized, according to Kohen.

Sam Durant's "Scaffold" early on Friday as workers began dismantling it and at sunset, with only its metal framework remaining.
Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” early on Friday as workers began dismantling it and at sunset, with only its metal framework remaining.

A Dose of Shame

David Cournoyer, who is Lakota and a Rosebud Sioux tribal member, expressed an unwillingness to let the Walker Art Center off the hook for its handling of the sculpture and the controversy surrounding it. “I would love to see the emails and the internal documents,” Cournoyer said, referring to the museum’s process and procedures for acquiring the work. “[Olga Viso] had her eye on this for five years. She didn’t talk to one Indian? She knew. She had to have known. But you know what? She didn’t care. Standing Rock has been on the front pages for a year and a half. They know this and they didn’t give a shit.”

Cournoyer also expressed frustration with Sam Durant receiving credit for his apology and subsequent actions, including transferring his intellectual property rights for the piece to the Dakota. “Meanwhile he walks off — you know he’s been paid in full,” Cournoyer said. “He’s got this street cred now. In his head, he’s super benevolent. It’s a win-win-win for everybody.”

At the press conference last Wednesday, Durant described the process of meeting elders from the Dakota as “a powerful, moving experience.” “We are setting incredible possibilities for the future,” he said. “I’ve just learned an incredible amount. I’ve done historical research and archival research, but I had not met with the people who had been living with this history for 500 years. … I just want to apologize for the trauma, the suffering that my work has caused in the community.”

The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at sunset on Friday, with the remnants of Sam Durant's "Scaffold" on the left
The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at sunset on Friday, with the remnants of Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” on the left

At the same press conference, Viso admitted that the Walker’s process in placing “Scaffold” in the Garden had been flawed. “I apologize that we were not sufficiently aware of the implications of its placement or sympathetic to the pain and suffering that it would elicit,” she said. The disconnect that left both the artist and the Walker oblivious to the sculpture’s potentially painful meaning for Dakota and Native people speaks to the need for Native people to tell their own stories, as many Native critics have pointed out over the last two weeks.

“We need to tell our own narrative,” Rafael Gonzales, an anti-Dakota Access Pipeline activist and a descendent of the Dakota 38 +2, said in an email. “If non-Native allies are willing to teach our history, it is crucial that they spend time with our people and consult with us on appropriate ways of doing so.”

While it is still unclear when or where the remains of “Scaffold” will be burned, or if something else will happen, Gonzales is glad the sculpture has been taken down. “Our community did a great job of shaming the Walker Art Center and Sam Durant for this distasteful and hurtful portrayal of our history,” he said.

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