The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden opened in 1988 as a joint project between the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board. The public space features works by over 40 artists and is anchored by the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. It has in turn helped inspire the development of other public art spaces like Millennium Park in Chicago and the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle. Spoonbridge and other works, like Frank Gehry’s Standing Glass Fish, have become emblematic of both the Walker as an institution and of the value that the Twin Cities places on the arts.
In March 2015, the Walker announced a $75 million renovation project for both the museum and the sculpture garden. Phase One of the project, which was completed last year, included a new museum entrance and expanded lobby, a new outdoor plaza, additional vending areas, expanded museum hours, and the addition of a new restaurant, Esker Grove, run by celebrated chef Doug Flicker. Phase Two would see the Sculpture Garden completely reconstructed, with 19 additional pieces being added to the park (six of which are new commissions for the opening), including one of Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE sculptures and a 15-foot-tall blue rooster statue by Katharina Fritsch much like her London installation Hahn/Cock.
However, one piece, Sam Durant’s Scaffold, caused an uproar over the Memorial Day weekend that has reignited local discussions of cultural appropriation in both the art and Native American communities.
Sam Durant is a white, Los Angeles–based multimedia artist whose work explores cultural and historical issues, often focusing on the experiences of Native Americans and other minorities. His 2002 work Upside Down: Pastoral Scene is a commentary on African American lynchings and features a field of 12 inverted trees accompanied by a musical selection that includes Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” John Lee Hooker’s “Blues for Abraham Lincoln,” and Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet.” In 2003, as an artist-in-residence for the Walker, Durant collaborated with local Native charter school students to create Garden Project, a work that also featured an upturned tree as well as a recording of students “rapping, telling stories, and reading—in English, Ojibwe, and Lakota—about contemporary themes (AIDS, homelessness, teen pregnancy, basketball) and historical issues.” His 2008 Electric Signs project is more direct in its commentary, with a piece entitled (and reading) End White Supremacy. In 2015, he created Labyrinth, a commentary on the prison-industrial complex for Philadelphia’s Open Source public art project.
Scaffold, originally commissioned in 2012 for the German-based international exhibition documenta, is a large wooden structure that combines the forms of the gallows used in seven historical hangings—including the 1865 hanging of the conspirators in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the execution of Saddam Hussein in 2006, and, notably, the Minnesota execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862. The piece is meant to be accessible to the public and is suggested as a play structure for children. According to Durant’s website, Scaffold is meant to evoke “both the free play of childhood and the ultimate form of control, capital punishment. These seemingly oppositional tracks have come together in the United States in the last decade, resulting in what is known as ‘the School to Prison Pipeline.'”
The sculpture, and particularly its connection to the Dakota 38, brought sharp criticism from the local Native community after the structure rose up on the grounds of the Sculpture Garden. On Thursday, May 25, Walker executive director Olga Viso published a post on the museum’s blog detailing the new additions, including Scaffold, and news of its installation spread quickly across social media. By Friday, an onsite protest against Scaffold’s installation at the Garden, led by local artist Graci Horne, had come together, and demonstrators gathered on Bryant Avenue to hang signs critical of the artist and of the Walker as well as to educate people about the historical significance of the Dakota 38.
Despite it being the largest mass execution in US history, a number of Americans—even in Minnesota—are unfamiliar with the December 26, 1862, event in which 38 Dakota men were hanged publicly in Mankato, Minnesota, for participating in the Dakota Uprising. The execution was carried out on the orders of President Lincoln, who had commuted the death sentences of a large number of the other men who were originally condemned, originally numbering over 300. A “plus two” is often appended to the 38 by Dakota people to represent two Dakota chiefs, Little Six and Medicine Bottle, who were captured and executed at Fort Snelling in 1865.
Horne, a Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota and Hunkpapa Dakota woman, expressed frustration over continued ignorance of the event. “For the last 150 years, our elders have been passing down the story of what happened in our territory, and we have done documentaries, and pieces of art, and the Dakota 38 ride, but none of those efforts have ever been recognized,” she said. “It’s only [now] that Sam Durant, who is not a Native, gets this recognition [by creating] a death contraption.” Horne went on to detail the plight of Native peoples during and after the events of 1862, specifically pointing out that the hanging victims were “buried in a shallow grave next to the Minnesota River, and that night, doctors dug their bodies up for [medical] cadavers.” Following the end of the US–Dakota War, the Dakota people were expelled from Minnesota to Nebraska and North Dakota, and their reservations were abolished by the US government. As for Scaffold, Horne says, “It would have been better to do something [about] the life of someone, rather than how they died. Why is it that Native people are once again turned into a mascot and romanticized?”
Sasha Houston Brown of the Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska is a descendant of Khay-tan-hoon-ka, one of the Dakota 38, and has been critical of cultural appropriation in the past. While standing with protesters outside of the fenced-in Sculpture Garden on Friday, she said, “They put up an exact replica of the scaffold that was used to brutally murder our ancestors, which was designed by a white guy in LA, who is now nowhere to be found, conveniently.” Brown repeated what has been a chief criticism of protesters regarding the sculpture’s installation: an endemic lack of communication with the Native community and Native community leaders. Asked Brown, “Why did they not talk to any Native people? If they’re going to issue an apology now and say they want to have a dialogue, where were they before they put [Scaffold] in? Why would you wait until its already been installed before talking to any community members? Minneapolis has one of the highest urban Indian populations in the nation; there’s plenty of people here, and this is where the history took place.”
Further criticism of the work and the Walker’s decision to exhibit it in a public space has centered on the perceived lack of sensitivity toward the ongoing issue of recognition for the executions in particular and the injustices suffered by Native peoples in general. “This is one of Minnesota’s dirty secrets that they don’t talk about,” says Brown. “People don’t know about it; we’re not taught about it. It’s not in our history books the way that it should be.” Horne is specifically critical of the emotional effect that a reproduction of the scaffold can have in a city that both sits close to Mankato and itself lies in historical Dakota land. “I am a local artist, but I also deal with native women through survivor healing circles,” she says, “and in those circles, we always say that you can’t just heal your personal trauma, you have to heal your historical and ancestral trauma. Sometimes it’s long and daunting, and, as we know for survivors, there’s always triggers. This is one of the biggest triggers that you can put in such a central place for our Native community. So, we want to come together and have that be a healing event and a memorial for those warriors that were so honorable that they gave their lives for our people.”
On Friday afternoon, Olga Viso issued an apology to the Dakota community on behalf of the Walker Art Center, in an open letter to Twin Cities Native American newspaper the Circle. Viso admitted, “As director of the Walker, I regret that I did not better anticipate how the work would be received in Minnesota, especially by Native audiences. I should have engaged leaders in the Dakota and broader Native communities in advance of the work’s siting, and I apologize for any pain and disappointment that the sculpture might elicit.” The letter omitted any explicit references to the work being taken down, however, and stated instead that the Walker’s next steps would “be decided in consultation with community members who elect to be involved in this process; we will look to their feedback in shaping the framework for this process. As part of our active learning we recognize that our work moving forward must be done with the guidance of the Dakota community.”
Community leaders like Horne have been deferential to the voice of Dakota elders in the issue, with Horne noting, “We’re trying to promote that the elders come and speak . . . they’ve been talking about this their whole lives. We want to make sure that our elders are listened to and they make it right.” She went on to say that the elders are “the spearhead of this,” specifically naming Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Paula Horne, Belinda Jo Pretty Sounding Flute, Nancy Smith, Melvin Lee Brown, and Faith Spotted Eagle as elders who should be involved in the discussion. Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe for the Great Sioux Nation and a community leader, released a statement on Monday, May 29, expressing the community’s concern over the sculpture and asking for Scaffold to be taken down, saying, “I know that this man who created this structure has a good heart, but he 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.”
Durant’s goal as an artist seems to be an effort to increase awareness of oppressed peoples, but Sasha Brown challenges the effectiveness and appropriateness of his efforts. “Ultimately as a native people we’re always the subject matter,” says Brown. “If you really want to talk about Native art, let’s have Native artists doing Native art. Maybe in a best-case scenario, this person had a positive intention, [but] as a non-Native, white person, you’re going to recreate this scaffold and never once think about how the native community is going to react? This is our trauma. This is a real trauma and it’s very much alive for us.” Brown went on to speculate what the reaction might be if “a member of the non-Jewish community designed a gas chamber and put it in the middle of a public [space] where there’s minigolf and a blue rooster and kids could climb and play on this gas chamber . . . and they never talked about how Jews might feel about that as they said, as an afterthought, ‘Oh, maybe we should have engaged the Jewish community?'”
The protests and the Dakota community’s efforts appeared to have been successful. On Saturday afternoon, amid a second day of demonstrations, Olga Viso and the Walker released a statement saying they would dismantle and remove Scaffold. Viso said that she “regret[ted] the pain that this artwork has brought to the Dakota community and others,” adding, “This is the first step in a long process of healing.” She also stated that Walker officials would be meeting with Dakota elders early on Wednesday to determine how to proceed. Sam Durant will be in attendance at the meeting, along with representatives of the city and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
In her statement, Viso said Durant was open to the sculpture being taken down because “it’s just wood and metal—nothing compared to the lives and histories of the Dakota people.” Durant himself released a separate statement on Monday, clarifying his intention with the creation of the work but ultimately concluding, “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.” The statement concludes, “My work was created with the idea of creating a zone of discomfort for whites, [but] your protests have now created a zone of discomfort for me. In my attempt to raise awareness I have learned something profound and I thank you for that.”
The sculpture is expected to be dismantled soon after the Wednesday meeting, and the Walker has postponed its planned June 3 grand reopening of the Sculpture Garden until June 10 in the wake of the controversy. But Dakota community members like Horne are still concerned that the main issue—the fact that institutions regularly fail to interface with Native peoples—will continue. Says Horne, “The elders and the community are going to discuss it before this meeting on Wednesday, so I’m hoping that the right questions will be answered. Our elders aren’t privy to the art world . . . they don’t know the questions to ask, so I’m hoping for a transparency from the [Walker] to answer questions that aren’t even asked. At this point, for me, sorry isn’t enough. I hope for a good and peaceful resolution, and I hope this won’t further divide more people, because that’s what this has done: divided the community.”
Sasha Brown laments that fact that, unlike Germany’s response to the Holocaust, many genocides of Native American populations aren’t considered “genocide” and are still, in her words, “very taboo.” “The fact that the largest mass execution happened here still, among our own citizens of Minnesota, isn’t discussed,” she says. “I think for a lot of us ethnic people . . . we’re out of sight, out of mind. We might come up as a buzzword, like, ‘Oh, Standing Rock’ . . . We’ll talk about Native people there, but we’re not going to talk about native people in these other areas.” She stresses the importance of education about the Dakota 38 and other historical events and of “listen[ing] to Dakota voices, because as Dakota, this is our history. There’s so many Dakota people in the urban area; talk to them, reach out, and if the people don’t want this here, then its [the Walker’s] responsibility to take it down.”
Inyan Walking Elk, a local Dakota woman, attended the protest on Friday with her two daughters, who ran laughing along the sign-covered fences surrounding the construction site. “They’re actually going to school to learn the [Dakota] language,” she said of her girls, “and they’re a big reason why I’m here. But I’m also here for myself . . . thinking about the exploitation of our pain and our history, again, for the sake of ‘art,’ for the sake of someone’s financial gain, and for the sake of notoriety for the city. Imagining kids playing on that . . . how are my children supposed to feel good when mainstream society is drawing inspiration from their people’s pain and our people’s murder?”
For more information on the efforts against Scaffold in the Walker Garden, visit www.notart38plus2.com. If you need a history lesson on the Dakota Uprising, this TPT documentary is a good place to start. And for more information about the Dakota 38+2 ride and its associated documentary film, click here.