By Mordecai Specktor

Offensive art

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 avail-able 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.