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Political Matters
Offensive Art
Thursday, June 01 2017
 
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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On Sunday, May 28, I drove over to the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden to see “Scaffold,” a construction by Sam Durant, a Los Angeles-based artist. The two-story piece, which resembles an elaborate wood and metal jungle gym (when I first saw a photo of it, I thought it was a piece of playground equipment), references a number of executions in the United States, including the 1862 hanging of 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato, Minnesota – the largest mass execution in this nation’s history.

For Dakota people, and those attuned to this country’s horrific treatment of American Indians, the sight of the massive gallows triggers a nauseated feeling and a welling up of emotions. It’s like a ghastly apparition from the 19th century. Setting this sculpture in the ancestral Dakota homeland is truly a monumental act of cultural insensitivity. And, of course, it provoked a vociferous protest and subsequent press coverage.

On the day before my visit, Walker Executive Director Olga Visa had announced that the sculpture would be dismantled. “I regret the pain that this artwork has brought to the Dakota community and others,” Viso said, in a statement posted on the Walker website.

Viso’s statement mentioned that Durant “is open to many outcomes including the removal of the sculpture. He has told me, ‘It’s just wood and metal – nothing compared to the lives and histories of the Dakota people.’”

In a previous statement issued by Viso, she expressed “regret” at not anticipating “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.”

This art world debacle is dumbfounding, and it betrays a clueless, insular arts organization that bushwhacked the Dakota community, and didn’t foresee that there would be hell to pay.

(In my April column in The Circle, I praised the Walker’s program “INDIgenesis: Indigenous Filmmakers, Past and Present,” which created a space for American Indian filmmakers, such as Missy Whiteman, Stacey Thunder, Zack and Adam Khalil, et al. Then the organization inflicted “Scaffold” on the community.)

The revamped sculpture garden – Durant’s work is one of 18 new pieces on display – is set to open June 3. The area is surrounded by a chain-link fence, which now is festooned with banners and signs protesting Durant and the Walker:

• This hurts native people

• SHAMEFUL / Take It Down / This is not art, this is repulsive

• Relatives of the Dakota 38 Live Here

• This is disrespectful to my grandfathers!

• So very disrespectful, disturbing and wrong!

Also fastened to the fence are three large sheets, with the headline “Remember Their Names/38 + 2,” which list the names of the 38 Dakota men hanged in Mankato; and of Wakanozanzan (Medicine Bottle) and Little Six (Shakopee III), two chiefs who were kidnapped from Canada and hanged Nov. 11, 1865, at Fort Snelling.

At the Sculpture Garden protest, Graci Horne (Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota and Hunkpapa Lakota/Dakota) was being interviewed by a video crew. Horne, a mixed media artist and curator, told me that she was making art materials available to people who wanted to post a message on the fence.

She approved of the Walker’s decision to dismantle the sculpture, but said, “The larger issue at hand is that there’s a lot of cultural appropriation” of Native religion and history. “We’re still fighting the Washington Redskins; we’re still fighting exploitation of pipestone in Pipestone, Minnesota. There are many different issues.”

The Walker acquiescing to the outcry and agreeing to dismantle “Scaffold” is “really just a small victory,” Horne commented. “We’re happy to take this opportunity to talk about cultural appropriation, because a lot of people don’t understand it… We’d like to take this opportunity to educate people about the true history of Minnesota and what really happened here.”

As for non-Indians who “don’t understand” the Sculpture Garden protest, a bellicose middle-aged white man hectored Horne about a sign on the fence that read: “$200.00 Reward for scalp of the artist!!” A synthetic hairpiece, a replica of a scalp, was attached to the sign.” The wasicu was incensed about what he perceived as a threat to the artist. I asked the man if he knew about Minnesota’s history of paying bounties for Dakota scalps in the 1860s; but he didn’t seem to understand the grim reality of what happened some miles southwest of where we stood.

A lot of education is needed to undo the profound racism that blights our society.

American Indian cinema, etc.
Tuesday, April 04 2017
 
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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coyote-way.jpgPolitics – the stuff of this column in The Circle – merged with art in a film series called “INDIgenesis: Indigenous Filmmakers, Past and Present,” which was presented in March at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

I attended the screening of Missy Whiteman’s The Coyote Way: Going Back Home, which was filmed with a cast of young Native American actors at Little Earth and around the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. The heartfelt 30-minute film – billed as a “sci­fi/docu-­narrative” – is about a boy who has to decide between joining a street gang or going on a journey to find the truth of his existence. Whiteman (Northern Arapaho and Kickapoo) and a contingent of actors, musicians and production staffers participated in a Q&A after the film screening.

And on March 25, I attended the program called “Views from Standing Rock,” which presented a video from Stacey Thunder’s web series Indigenous, and clips from the documentary in-progress Akicita, both of which concern the remarkable effort at Standing Rock to stop the Dakota Access pipeline.

Thunder’s video about the water protectors’ struggle (she said it will be on YouTube soon), and Akicita, directed by Heather Rae and Cody Lucich, put youth and women in the forefront of this amazing story of American Indian solidarity. Hundreds of Native nations, along with activists from around the globe, rallied to the cause at Standing Rock, and the Oceti Sakowin encampment, near Cannonball, No. Dakota, grew to a population of 11,000.

Rae’s 2005 documentary Trudell also was screened as part of the INDIgenesis series at the Walker. And she is listed as an executive producer for a segment of Viceland’s excellent documentary series about indigenous issues called Rise.

The first two Rise programs are about the stand at Standing Rock; and they are notable in providing context – such as the Indian boarding school atrocities, the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, and Wounded Knee II and the American Indian Movement – for those viewers lacking a grasp of what has led us to these emotionally fraught times.

I also want to mention another program, “The Urban Rez,” from the Rise series. The segment focuses on Winnipeg, which is home to 80,000 Indians, and looks at the scourges of poverty, and violence directed at Native girls and women. The program, written and directed by Michelle Latimer, features Gitz Crazyboy, an activist from the Athabascan Chippewyan First Nations, whose ancestral land has been despoiled by the Alberta tar sands. Again, the residential schools come into focus as a source of intergenerational trauma in Canada’s First Nations.

Getting back to the INDIgenesis film series, I didn’t attend the screening for INAATE/SE/ (it shines a certain way. to a certain place./ it flies. falls./), but I was able to watch an online screener. This intriguing, experimental documentary film, by Zack and Adam Khalil (Ojibway), concerns the Seven Fires Prophecy of the Ojibwe. The filmmakers are from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and the 75-minute film looks at the destruction of the American Indian lifeway in this area of the northern Great Lakes.

And speaking of destruction, the so-called U.S. president, Donald Trump, declared war on the planet in March, with his executive orders approving construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, and dismantling former President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which was intended to shift the economy away from dirty coal. Trump and his crew of climate deniers and Big Oil proponents – including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil – are determined to ravage the natural environment in furtherance of maximizing corporate profits.

I doubt that Trump knows the particulars of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipeline projects – he’s a complete ignoramus in virtually every area of public policy. However, his executive orders will ignite popular resistance to the hard energy path.

In regard to the Keystone XL pipeline, which will pass within 200 yards of the Rosebud reservation, a story in the Bismarck Tribune noted that “resistance camps similar to those occupied at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation through the fall and early winter will be formed again in South Dakota, where the Rosebud and Cheyenne River Sioux have already pledged physical space...”

The story quoted Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network: “We will carry forth the fire and unity we saw with Dakota Access against this next project. We learned solid lessons from Dakota Access and what is obvious is that this fight won’t be in one location, but throughout the entire length of the project.”

DAPL set to move oil March 6
Tuesday, March 14 2017
 
Written by mo,
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When I last wrote about the struggle at Standing Rock, in the Oct. 2016 issue of The Circle, several federal departments – the Army, Justice and Interior – had stopped construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline (DAPL). And on Dec. 4, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would not grant an easement under Lake Oahe, just north of the Standing Rock reservation, for the Dakota Access pipeline; the Corps said that it would prepare an environmental impact statement for alternative pipeline routes.

However, there’s a new sheriff in town, so to speak, and the tide has turned in favor of fossil fuels and oil pipelines.

Regarding the stand made at Standing Rock, the last water protectors were hauled out of the Oceti Sakowin camp near Cannonball, No. Dakota, on Feb. 23, following an order by No. Dakota authorities to evacuate the camp.

“The process of clearing out the camp took nearly four hours to complete and included 220 officers and 18 members of the National Guard, the AP reported,” according to Teen Vogue magazine, a quite good news source for the #NoDAPL movement. “ABC News noted that police arrested 46 people who refused to leave the camp. Speaking to ABC News, a representative for the North Dakota Joint Information Center said that when one group of veterans refused to voluntarily leave the camp, they were carried out by law enforcement.”

And Teen Vogue quoted Chase Iron Eyes, a lawyer, activist and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which has spearheaded the fight against DAPL: “The battleground has shifted to the legal courts and the court of public opinion.”

Regarding the legal front, Earthjustice, a public interest law firm representing the Standing Rock tribe, is pushing its motion for summary judgement, which “lays out our case, basically, that what President Trump and the Army Corps of Engineers did was illegal, in… reversing their decision to move forward with an environmental impact statement,” said Phillip Ellis, senior press secretary for Earthjustice.

Readers might recall that Trump, on his fourth day in office, signed an executive action to advance approval of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines. It’s not clear if Trump actually read the documents or knew any of the details of the two projects; but he signed the papers and displayed his signature to those assembled in the Oval Office.

During a phone interview from his Washington, D.C., office, Ellis pointed out that the motion for summary judgement, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is intended to expedite the court’s decision, “before we thought oil would flow through the pipeline. The company continues to move its deadline up.”

The court might not make a decision on the Standing Rock tribe’s legal motion before oil starts flowing on March 6, according to Ellis, who said that Energy Transfer Partners, the corporation behind DAPL, is “moving on a very aggressive schedule.”

The section of pipeline under Lake Oahe is the last link of the 1,172-mile underground pipeline carrying oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota through So. Dakota and Iowa, and ending at a tank farm near Patoka, Ill.

Although the Oceti Sakowin camp has been demolished, Ellis pointed out that “there’s a lot that still remains” of the popular opposition to DAPL.
Notably, a “march in prayer and action” has been called by the Standing Rock tribe and indigenous grassroots leaders for March 10 in Washington, D.C. (standwithstandingrock.net/march). The march will be preceded by three days of lobbying on Capitol Hill; and there is a demand that Pres. Trump meet with tribal leaders and learn the importance of respecting tribal rights.

The wrecking crew known as the Trump administration is poised to do great harm to people and the natural environment. In late February, I also talked with Kevin Whelan, executive director of MN350, a group committed to action to combat climate change. Putting pressure on banks (including US Bank and Wells Fargo) providing funds for oil pipelines and fossil fuel development has been a MN350 focus.

“Our work has gotten much harder, but many more people are stepping up to join in the work,” said Whelan, regarding the situation since Trump was sworn in as president.

Specifically, Whelan explained that Trump has moved aggressively against the movement for clean energy, and has reversed the partial victory won at Standing Rock. He has “appointed climate deniers and enemies of clean air and water to important positions.”

We all will need to stay alert and stay active to resist the onslaught from Washington.

A great warrior walks on
Wednesday, February 08 2017
 
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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Larry Leventhal, a wonderful human being and a dedicated legal advocate for American Indians, was remembered in words and in song at his funeral, Jan. 20th at Temple Israel in Minneapolis.

Larry Long sang the “Ballad of Larry Leventhal,” which included this verse: “Traveled the country over like a troubadour / The legal briefs he’d written scattered across the floor / Yet, he knew exactly where to find all that he wrote / The truth burned in his soul and he never gave up hope.”

Leventhal, who died Jan. 17 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 75, also was remembered by his brother-in-law, Bob Maisel, who spoke on behalf of the family. Maisel mentioned that Leventhal’s Hebrew name was Baruch (which means “blessed”), and his American Indian name was translated as “He Whose Voice Is Carried in the Wind”.

Clyde Bellecourt, a founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM), told mourners in the packed sanctuary  that Leventhal was a “great warrior” for Indian people. Bellecourt said that the Jewish lawyer from St. Louis Park was involved in the incorporation of nearly every American Indian school, health clinic and housing project in the Twin Cities over recent decades.

During a recent phone conversation with Bellecourt, I asked him what he meant by the words “great warrior.”
“He was a lawyer in the battle for justice, a warrior,” replied Bellecourt. “Indian Country recognized him that way for all the work that he did for Indian people… I think he was a great warrior. He battled for justice, treaty rights, water and land issues, fishing and hunting, Indian religious freedom… culturally-based education, survival schools.”

The moving funeral service at Temple Israel concluded with three Ojibwe men playing hand drums and singing a traditional traveling-on song, as Leventhal’s casket was carried out of the sanctuary.

Leventhal was the treaty law expert on the legal team that represented Dennis Banks and Russell Means in the 1974 Wounded Knee leadership trial in St. Paul federal court. Leventhal was the last surviving member of the legal team that included William Kunstler, Mark Lane, Ken Tilsen and Doug Hall.

The U.S. government indicted hundreds of Indians after the 1973 occupation and paramilitary siege of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge reservation. Judge Fred Nichol, who presided at the trial, did not want to hear Leventhal’s arguments related to the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty between the United States and the Great Sioux Nation; however, as the trial wound on, he began to listen to the treaty rights arguments, according to Bellecourt. Nichol, who tried to rein in the flamboyant defense lawyers, eventually turned his wrath on the government prosecutors. The judge finally dismissed all charges against Banks and Means, and decried the government’s “sordid and misleading conduct” in the case.

Randy Furst wrote in the Star Tribune that the late lawyer and author Vine Deloria, Jr. once said of Leventhal: “He disarms so many opponents…. He comes across as a bumpkin. Then all of a sudden, you’re on the canvas, asking, ‘Who was that masked man?’”

Leventhal was one of the top five lawyers in the country on Indian treaty issues, according to Deloria, and “the only one who is white."

At the shiva (a traditional Jewish remembrance gathering) the evening after the funeral, officials of the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe, including the current chairman, Mic Isham, remembered some of the good work Leventhal did for the tribe, including helping to establish WOJB, the FM radio station located on the LCO reservation.

Also at the shiva, Mary Al Balber (Red Cliff Ojibwe) read an email she sent to members of the Minnesota American Indian Bar Association (MAIBA). Leventhal was a “Special Member” of MAIBA, and Balber said he “advised LCO in what later became the Voigt decision, which reaffirmed our treaty rights. The Tribble brothers, LCO members who challenged the treaty rights by fishing and getting arrested, were students in Larry’s federal Indian law class taught at St. Scholastica. Talk about having a professor who made a difference!”

I will always be grateful for Larry’s dedicated work on behalf of my son, Max, who was ensnared in the state government’s prosecution of local organizers after the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Larry served as the attorney for Max, in what was called the RNC 8 case, which dragged on for more than two years in Ramsey County District Court, before it fizzled out.

And I will borrow Mary Al Balber’s words in closing this remembrance: “Gigawaabamin, Larry. We will see you again.”

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