It seems Walker Art Center did the right thing in deciding to dismantle an artistic composite of the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862. But it was a no-brainer. Protests are bad for business, and they were sure to swell unpleasantly at the popular Sculpture Garden’s June reopening.
How so many observers grasped the stupidity of positioning “Scaffold” as a child’s jungle gym — while no one at Walker did — is just one question. Now we’ll see whether Walker is willing to step from behind the cloak of artistic freedom, and institutional inscrutability, to really make things right.
Dismantling the structure is easy, but this moment demands more. Walker needs to lead Minnesota in a bigger challenge to dismantle inequity. It is time.
With “Scaffold,” Walker sought to spark a provocative conversation on capital punishment. Yet, Dakota perspectives were less than an afterthought; they were barely a historical footnote in executive director Olga Viso’s overly academic defense, which spoke more to Walker’s artist stakeholders than anyone else.
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. And that is the real problem.
This is not about artistic expression. This is about institutional arrogance and systemic inequity.
The Walker tragedy (it does call for that term) reflects intertwined challenges facing our state: insular decisionmaking in many institutions, the lack of serious truth-telling about American Indian genocide and the need to fully hear the Dakota side of the story.
“Minnesota” is a Dakota word, for goodness sake! For too long, the dominant northern European culture has dictated silence — saying and acknowledging nothing — even when white Christian ancestors cheered the executions on the day after Christmas 1862.
The problem isn’t unique to Walker. When Indian people said that art at the State Capitol was offensive for romanticizing conquest, state leaders strongly resisted removing it. Enforcing legal treaty rights to hunt and fish is still controversial. By the state’s own analysis, a proposed crude oil pipeline through northern Minnesota would exacerbate historical trauma for the Ojibwe; yet that might not be enough to stop it.
Minnesota’s first peoples are invisible, marginalized and traumatized. Trauma lives in their blood memory.
Viso sounds as if Walker is willing to examine its policies of inclusion and equity. This will require the institution to do truth-telling about how its staff, board and programming reflect marginalized communities.
For now, the most urgent matter is listening to Dakota people. We authors of this commentary are allies who do not speak for them. Walker Art Center missed one historic opportunity to lift up a painful history of subjugation and oppression that continues today. It now has another historic opportunity — giving the Dakota people a chance to tell their story through their own art and other channels. Walker needs to commit to a long-term, equitable process requiring deep listening and a shared vision.
This history is not past; it is the unacknowledged present. Canada went through a truth and reconciliation process with its First Nations. Bemidji has a similar effort emerging from grass-roots discussions. Along such journeys, artistic expression can indeed spark courageous conversations and reflection. Difficult and inevitably imperfect, moving forward together requires patience, respect and humility.
A road map can be found in a small movie with a transformational message playing now at the Lagoon Theater. The film adaptation of the book “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” chronicles how a white Minnesota man answers an Indian elder’s long-distance call for help. The request is difficult, involving the same wrongs uncovered at Walker: abuse, genocide and no systemic acknowledgment of the history or the trauma. The white man initially fights the calling: he has other things to do and there are huge cultural divides. He struggles to come to terms with his own great-grandparents’ role in the history.
But chugging along together in an old Buick across reservation land and other boundaries, the white man and the Indian elder do find their way in helping each other.
Now Walker Art Center has its own calling to answer.
David Cournoyer, a Rosebud Sioux tribal member, and Scott Russell are part of Healing Minnesota Stories, which has sought to promote cross-cultural understanding about Dakota history and culture.