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‘A Seed of Healing and Change’: Native Americans Respond to Sam Durant’s ‘Scaffold’

Sam Durant’s Scaffold amid unrest.

SHEILA DICKINSON

Scaffold, a now storied sculpture by Sam Durant, appeared in the Walker Art Center’s much-loved sculpture garden next to the sugary sweet Spoonbridge and Cherry, a local landmark by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. The ’80s-era Pop icon is a giant bent spoon holding up a piece of bright red fruit. The newer work, installed for an opening that its presence instead delayed, incorporated a sized-to-scale replica of a historic gallows upon which 38 men—all from the Dakota tribe native to the area that is now Minnesota—were executed by hanging in 1862. It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history and took place some 80 miles south of Minneapolis, in a town called Mankato.

Looming over visitors to the newly renovated sculpture park, Scaffold was outfitted with stairs that invited visitors to interact with the piece and children to play. For Native American viewers, the piece looked less like a ‘70s playground and more like a structure designed to kill their ancestors.  The equipment became the province of the powerful—for the viewer who can walk on and off with no further implication considered.

Durant is a Los Angeles-based artist who has produced thought-provoking conceptual work for more than two decades. He created the first iteration of Scaffold through a commission from Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany, in 2012, the same year that the 150th anniversary of the Dakota execution was commemorated with a solemn horse journey from the Lower Brule Indian Reservation to the hanging site in Mankato. Olga Viso, the Walker Art Center’s executive director, explained in a press conference last Wednesday that, though the piece was acquired in 2014, neither the proximity to Mankato nor the specific significance of the structure had been perceived as problematic until after the sculpture was erected. Only when the Walker began planning interpretive materials in late May did the institution “begin getting indications of concerns about perception of the work,” Viso said, “and so began the process of consultation.”

Scaffold next to Spoonbridge and Cherry.

SHEILA DICKINSON

Many reasons provoked the strong negative reaction that has been directed toward Scaffold by native and non-native communities in Minnesota, where peace and reconciliation among the two remains a distant goal. Glorified paintings of cultural and racial superiority over the Dakota people created at the turn of the last century still adorn the state capitol’s Senate chambers, even after Governor Mark Dayton set up a special committee last year to survey citizens about relocating the offensive artwork. Despite a majority willing to see the paintings transplanted and all eleven registered tribes of Minnesota requesting that the work go to a museum, only two paintings out of ten were legislatively approved to move.

Similarly, it was not until 2015 that the state’s sixth-grade history textbooks were updated to include a more inclusive story of Native Americans in the late 19th century, as well as acknowledgement of the forced removal of the Dakota people. Additional controversy has also arisen over recent talks about how to commemorate the bicentennial of Fort Snelling, which was established as a military base for U.S. forces in 1820 and served as the site of an internment camp for Dakota women, children, and elders after the Mankato executions. To complicate the situation further, Fort Snelling is built at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers—a place known as Bdote, the sacred spiritual birthplace of the Dakota people.

The story that led to the source of the gallows evoked by Scaffold is grim. In 1851, the Dakota signed a treaty that ceded 24 million acres of land (a third of the state of Minnesota) for three cents an acre. Most of the money went to a fur trader named Henry Sibley to, as the lore goes, “settle their affairs.” Some 7,000 Dakota were sent to a 10-mile strip of mostly non-arable land and, by the winter of 1862, they were starving and were refused food and provisions. A trader named Andrew Myrick famously said, “As far as I’m concerned, let them eat grass.” Days later, violence broke out and one of the first casualties was Myrick, found with grass stuffed in his mouth. Thus began the three-month U.S.-Dakota War, during which 303 Dakota warriors were captured and a letter was sent to Abraham Lincoln seeking the right to execute them all. Lincoln sanctioned 38, later to be known as the Dakota 38.

Signs of protest.

SHEILA DICKINSON

Certainly Scaffold has sparked conversation and raised awareness of the troubled history of the Dakota people. The failure to connect with those traumatized by the work signals how, as Scott Russell and David Cournoryer wrote in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Minnesota has so successfully wiped clean its awful treatment of Dakota people that no one—no Walker curator, board member or patron—raised the issue of what actual Dakota might think.”

Within a Native American cultural and spiritual understanding of ancestral memory and generational knowledge, the thought of kids climbing and playing on the structure of a gallows struck many as profane. Graci Horne, a young Dakota artist, helped organize protests at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden that grew in size and intensity last week. “I feel sick to my stomach being near this object that replicates the killing of my ancestors,” she said in a conversation at the site. “It is such a disrespectful object.” Signs around her hung on fences with messages like “Take it down.” A makeshift memorial was made with spray paint on sheets spelling out the names of the Dakota who died in 1862. Flowers lay at its base, with LED lights to keep vigil at night.

In January 2016, an early Walker press release provided a brief description of Scaffold, mentioning its gallows-like appearance and its provocative nature but not its structural reference to the Mankato execution. But in an open letter of apology sent May 26 to the Native American news source The Circle, the Walker issued a further statement about setting up a meeting with Dakota elders and Durant himself. The artist declared that he was open to removing the sculpture, and the Walker announced it would delay the grand opening of its newly renovated sculpture garden.

After a mediation session last Wednesday between Dakota elders, Durant, staff from the Walker, and representatives of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, clear and swift actions were announced, beginning with a traditional Dakota ceremony on Friday and a Native American construction company volunteering its services to dismantle the work. The wood was designated to be transported to Fort Snelling, where it will be ceremonially burned. The Walker also committed to commissioning a new work by a Native American artist, and Durant agreed never to produce Scaffold again while also granting the intellectual property rights of the work to the Dakota people. Durant gravely remarked after the mediation, “I have learned a tremendous amount in this process and I will not make this type of mistake in my work again, I hope.”

The names of the some of the Dakota 38.

SHEILA DICKINSON

Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University and author of Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians but Were Afraid to Ask, has consulted on other public artworks that evoke Native American history. Asked for his thoughts after the announcement that Scaffold would be removed, Treuer told ARTnews, “The artist put white comfort over native comfort. I cannot fathom that an artist could imagine a scaffold for a mass execution would teach white folk or educate our children. I know for a fact there are tried and tested methods of working with communities to build meaningful public artworks about history and that engage children.”

Rory Wakemup, the director of All My Relations Arts, a space devoted to contemporary Native American art in Minneapolis, said, “You can’t blame Sam Durant for trying, but he is a reflection of the system that he came from. He can’t really inform white privilege from a place of white privilege. Ignorance breeds ignorance.”

After the mediation session, Cheyanne St. John, the tribal history preservation officer for the Lower Sioux Indian Community, told ARTnews she is “disheartened that an amazing institution like the Walker, in a unique place like Minnesota with eleven tribal nations and a plethora of resources ready to engage their expertise and perspectives, did not call. If they had done that, they would have avoided all this happening.”

Wakemup said he sees an opportunity offered by the negligence of the past. “Large art institutions like the Walker are by design exclusive,” he said. “The Walker is now poised to set an example in the way it connects to communities of color, such as the native community in Minnesota.”

At the Dakota ceremony on Friday, the low throb of the drums ground the beats of traditional Dakota music while the smell of sage wafted over the crowd. The smoky scent surrounded Scaffold, sealing the negativity in and ensuring it would not travel with the wood when it moves. After the Native construction crew members were blessed, they mounted the structure and, with the loud grind of a chainsaw, began the deconstruction. The Dakota people now have access to all the material that made up the sculpture.

The ceremonial actions of dismantling Scaffold and burning it can be “more than a media play that acts as a Band Aid,” Wakemup said. “Rather, it is planting a seed of healing and change—which might be an oak, solid and lasting, if the Walker nurtures it.”

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