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Dakota Elders Decide to Bury Sam Durant’s Controversial Sculpture

Dakota Elders have decided the fate of Sam Durant’s “Scaffold,” which is legally in their possession.

Sam Durant's "Scaffold" (2012) mostly dismantled at the end of the day on Friday, with its wooden parts in a bin at left (photo by Sheila Regan/Hyperallergic)
Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” (2012) mostly dismantled at its former site on the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden (photo by Sheila Regan/Hyperallergic)

In a few weeks, members of the Dakota nation will bury the wooden remains of “Scaffold,” a controversial sculpture by Sam Durant that was removed from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden last June following protests from outraged Dakota groups. The decision to do so arrives after lengthy discussions between Dakota people over what to do with a public artwork that put on display a painful part of their history: a depiction of seven historical gallows used in state-sanctioned hangings, Durant’s sculpture referenced one device that was used to hang 38 Native men in Mankato, Minnesota at the end of the US-Dakota War of 1862. The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, notably, also sits on former Dakota land.

The burial will occur at an undisclosed location around September 17 or 18, as the Star Tribune‘s Alicia Eler reported. An alternative fate would have been a ceremonial burning, which was initially part of an agreement Dakota leaders and elders had reached with members of the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. The chief of the nation, Arvol Looking Horse, however, had reportedly not been consulted, and in later talks, insisted that the wood not be burned. The reasoning has less to do with concerns over historical connotations of censorship, which critics were quick to note, than with native customs.

“The wood has a spiritual nature that is inherent to itself in Lakota Dakota tradition,” Dakota elder Ronald P. Leith told the Star Tribune. “Of the four elements — fire, water, air, earth — you cannot use any of the elements in a disparaging fashion without putting yourself in a position of being disrespectful. To use fire to burn this wood that has a negative stigma attached to it — that is not allowed.”

Durant had given the Dakota people the copyright to the work, and members of the nation around Minnesota — as well as those exiled in other states — have since debated its fate. The steel and concrete structure of “Scaffold” have already been sent off to be recycled after Dakota construction workers dismantled it following a ceremony led by Dakota elders.

Leith also said that the burial site of its wooden pieces must be kept secret as native leaders are concerned that people will attempt to dig them up as crude souvenirs. Their actions would echo those that happened after the 1862 execution, he noted, when scavengers hunted for pieces of the dismantled gallows and gravediggers disturbed the buried prisoners.

A spokesperson for the Walker told Hyperallergic that “we continue to be in conversations with Dakota representative and to respect their decisions.”

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