Dakota tribal elders will oversee the dismantling of the controversial sculpture "Scaffold" beginning Friday, then hold a ceremonial burning of the wooden timbers of what once was envisioned as a cornerstone of the renovated Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
That plan, proposed by a Dakota committee, was announced Wednesday after a three-hour meeting with Walker Art Center Executive Director Olga Viso, Minneapolis city leaders and the work's creator, Sam Durant.
The Dakota people and their allies say "Scaffold" — based in part on the design of the gallows used to execute 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862 — is not art, and represents a painful history that Minnesotans have long ignored.
"These were acts of genocide, not something to be portrayed between a giant rooster and a cherry," said Cheyenne St. John, tribal historian for the Lower Sioux community, northwest of Mankato.
Viso called the agreement "the first step for the Walker in a long process to rebuild trust with the Dakota and Native communities throughout Minnesota. We're grateful to the Dakota leaders for their wisdom and patience."
The dispute has delayed the reopening of the garden, a joint effort by the Walker, which owns the art, and the Park Board, which owns the land. It was scheduled for Saturday but postponed until June 10.
"Scaffold" was funded by private money, and no public funds will be used for its dismantling, said Park Board Superintendent Jayne Miller.
An American Indian-owned construction firm will begin taking apart the work at 2 p.m. Friday, overseen by Dakota spiritual leaders and elders. The company is donating its services. The work is expected to take about four days.
The burning ceremony will take place at a site in the Fort Snelling area, where Dakota people were imprisoned after the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War.
Lower Sioux elder Sheldon Wolfchild blamed "the lack of historical truth in our education system" for a failure to understand his people's pain.
Wolfchild, whose grandfather Medicine Bottle was one of two warriors later hanged at Fort Snelling, said "Scaffold" was particularly insensitive given the high suicide rate among American Indian children. "Just the other day we had a memorial for a 12-year-old girl who strangled herself with a rope," he said. "What happens when a young boy or girl looks at that [sculpture] and is giving up? What if they say, 'My ancestors died on a rope, I may as well too.'
"When you make art, it has to be positive and negative, not just negative," said Wolfchild, a filmmaker who also acted in "Dances With Wolves," the Oscar-winning movie. "And for all of us to heal, in this state, in this country, we need to understand that we have to look at each other as common human beings from the heart."
Reporters were excluded from Wednesday's session, facilitated by a mediator, Stephanie Hope Smith, who specializes in sacred sites.
Durant promised to not re-create the gallows, and to transfer the intellectual property to the Dakota people. While some observers questioned the appropriateness of the decision — even equating it to censorship — the Los Angeles-based artist said he now regards "Scaffold'' as a "miscalculation," having failed to "make clear the way I want viewers to think about the work."
"I've done historical and archival research, but I had not met with the people who have been living with this history for 500 years," said Durant, who flew to Minneapolis for the meeting. "That was a powerful and moving experience. I just want to apologize for the trauma and suffering that my work has caused. I would say that what we have negotiated is a path forward and hopefully a path of healing."
Although it can be mistaken for a viewing deck or climbing gym, "Scaffold" (2012) is based on gallows used in seven U.S.-sanctioned hangings, including those of the "Dakota 38," the largest mass execution in American history. Intended as a space for "meditation on capital punishment and white supremacy," the work was not discussed in advance with the Dakota people, who once held much of southern and western Minnesota, including the Twin Cities.
Facing starvation, a number of Dakota took up arms in 1862 after being forced onto reservations and cheated out of money they were owed. Over its six weeks, the U.S.-Dakota War cost the lives of an estimated 600 white settlers and soldiers, and 100 Dakota warriors. In hasty trials, 303 warriors were sentenced to death for accusations of murder and rape. President Lincoln commuted most of the sentences. Another 160 to 300 Dakota men, women and children subsequently died at Fort Snelling of malnutrition and disease.
The execution was "more vigilante justice than justice," said tribal historian St. John. "These men fought in a war instigated by a series of broken treaty promises that led to starvation and death. We will always remember and honor these men."
"My hope is that the Walker begins to understand that they need to make significant changes in their community-engagement practices," Kate Beane, a Dakota public historian and museum professional, said before Wednesday's meeting. "They need to hire a more diverse staff and make proper outreach a commitment and priority. They can make this a learning moment, and showcase Dakota and other Native artists more. They can speak with us and not about us."
Viso reiterated Wednesday that the museum's process "was flawed. I apologize that we were not sufficiently aware about the implications of [the sculpture's] placement and the pain this would elicit."
She outlined future steps for the Walker that include holding "forums for listening and learning," reaching out to Native communities, commissioning work by Native artists and looking for ways to change the museum's institutional structure.
After the meeting, some gathered at the protest site near "Scaffold." Posters that line the fence — decrying the sculpture as "not art" and listing the names of the Dakota 38 — will now be preserved.
Sue GoodStar, a member of the Dakota elders committee, said the decision gave her a sense of resolution.
"When I first came up here, I would've been the first person to say fire Olga, but I think she was real sincere," said GoodStar. "You could see it in her voice and everything. I think she humbly knows she screwed up."
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