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The Walker Art Center Scaffold Exhibition and How It Offended the Dakota Nations

~ Ron Leith
 JANUARY 15, 2018

January 13, 2018
David Hofstede Interview for Cowboys and Indian Magazine
Topic: The Walker Art Center Scaffold Exhibition and How

It Offended the Dakota Nations

In our St. Paul, Minnesota home of the 1950’s and 60’s the Dakota Uprising was always a topic reserved for only late night discussions.  Not a topic to be spoken of in the light of day for fear of public reprisals.  Even though it had been over 100 years since the Dakota Conflict of 1862 and it’s tragic aftermath there was still an inherent fear and apprehension of that conversation in the Dakota community.

Especially in our family because we were descendants of Little Crow, the Mdewakantowan Chief that led the Dakota-Wahpekute-Sissetowan warriors during the summer and fall of that fateful year.

As a matter of fact my father, Clarence Leith, would never speak the Dakota language unless with other Dakota family members and only in the privacy of seclusion.  So even though the language was accessible, we children were never allowed or encouraged to learn its' beauty.

After the Dakota Conflict came to an end in the fall of 1862 Little Crow or Taoyateduta (His Red Nation) escaped to Manitoba with many others who had been involved in the war.  When he secretly returned in July of 1863 he was ambushed and shot by two farmers in Hutchinson, Minnesota, for the scalp bounty.  Only after killing him did they realize who he was and what that meant to the State of Minnesota.  The State of Minnesota after dismembering the body, put his head on a pole in downtown St. Paul, where it remained for many years for the public to target and violate in their anger.

So as to minimize any danger that might be posed to our family, the history and lineal descendancy of our family was always a subtle subject, only to be celebrated in safe circumstances.

This information has never been and still is not taught in the Minnesota public school system as part of any curriculum.  In 1971 the American Indian Movement established the Survival School
system to address the huge disparities in success between Native and non-Native children in the educational system in Minnesota.  Within this venue which included the Red School House in St. Paul, and the AIM Survival School in Minneapolis, where I taught for many years, we were finally able to teach and learn about the truth in Minnesota history, and in American history around the relationships between the United States and Indian Country.

The Dakota Conflict of 1862 was a centerpiece of the Indian History and Culture series.  The American Indian Movement fought for the freedom of education for Native children without fear of reprisal.  So in that context, the truth of those events came to the surface because the Native families in Minnesota now had a safe environment in which to openly discuss and share the tragic events which affected their families and communities. It was here that we began to learn of the horrific events surrounding the aftermath of the Dakota Conflict and why the effect of those events still resonated deeply within the homes of Dakota families from Santee, Nebraska up the Red River Valley to Sioux Valley, Manitoba.

As Germany is not proud of it’s mid twentieth century legacy, the State of Minnesota is not proud of it’s post Dakota Conflict legacy of 1862-63.  State officials have made a constant effort to distance themselves and avoid this particular era in state history because they don’t want it to be known that they orchestrated the largest mass hanging in the history of the United States.  Nothing has compared up to that time or since that time in magnitude with regard to justice and or injustice in this state or this country.  That type of history is not a state priority.  Minnesota now wants to be known as the liberal, anti-racist and bigotry free state of a new age.  Which is an admirable aspiration, except for the fact that it has been build on theft, deceit, bribery, scoundralism, and unabated murder in the case of the Dakota people.  The State of Minnesota stole thousands of acres of land by manipulating the illiteracy of the Dakota people from the first treaty of 1851 to the final treaty of 1868 at Ft. Laramie.  When the general public demanded that more land be made available for “settlement” the only obstacle were the Dakota people.  Of course I’m deliberately leaving out the Ojibwe in Minnesota because that history belongs to them.

The Dakota Conflict of 1862 began during a time of poor harvest, lack of hunting grounds, federal  mismanagement, and trader theft.  The U.S.- Dakota treaties were promises made and not kept.  When the Dakota’s were left to starve, beg, and humiliate themselves in front of traders, officials, and clergy the good people of Minnesota did not come to their aid.  But rather sat on the sidelines, as hyenas, and waited for the Dakota to be decimated, relocated or starved out of their lands, or killed so they could reap the rewards and loot their assets. It was also in this context of human hardship that the “uprising” took place.  It was also the culmination of inadequate federal policies which only served as a detrimental approach to U.S.-Dakota relations.

The centerpiece of which was the largest mass hanging in the history of the United States and the kangaroo court, ten-minute military trials of those Dakota involved in the conflict.  Trials in which there were no legal representatives, interpreters and or advocates to serve for the defense of many Dakota men and boys, some of whom were not even involved in the conflict.  We know of one young boy in particular who was hung by mistake.

But the other tragedies included the murder and disappearances of many Dakota during the relocation and eventual diaspora of the entire Dakota Nation to the western territories which were considered to be neutral to the conflict.  That is why the current Dakota Nation is spread throughout the present day Dakota’s and up into the Canadian provinces.

Women and children were being arbitrarily hunted, murdered, secretly disposed of by the Minnesota citizens and U.S. military as they were being forcibly relocated to the Ft. Snelling concentration camp and on the river voyage down to Davenport Iowa.  And they were then sent to the most inhospitable territory imaginable to die in record numbers.

It is this series of post conflict events that caused a condition of historical and intergenerational trauma among today’s Dakota families.  So to have to revisit and once again face the facts of this history for many Dakota families has caused an unnecessary trauma.

The news of the Walker Art Center’s Scaffold exhibit hit Native social media bulletin boards in early summer.  I began paying attention when notice went out to the Dakota elders about meetings taking place around the negative impact of the work.  As a Dakota elder I was interested in what was being discussed around the issue especially with regard to conditions being set for ongoing planning and resolutions.

By the time I attended my first meeting in Sisseton, South Dakota the structure had already been taken down and the wood was being stored by the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board.  This meeting  was one of a series being hosted by prominent Dakota elders and spiritual leaders.  The Dakota elders working group was made up of prominent Dakota families from Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota and Canada.
The discussion centered around the spiritual impact that the exhibit would have and how to work within a sensitive framework for its destruction.  Two things became apparent right away, one was that the wood was not to be burnt, and the other was that the storage and ultimate destruction of the wood had to remain confidential and private.

Of course the first reaction of many was to burn the wood.  But working within the spiritual context of Dakota tradition and cultural values we realized that using fire in a negative, destructive manner was not respectful of fire itself.  As fire has a spirit and it is much too powerful to be used in a destructive manner, especially in relation to this historical issue.  So the decision was finally made to shred and bury the wood in a private, undisclosed location.

The reason for privacy or secrecy was historically driven.  In 1862 after the mass hanging in Mankato, Minnesota, the citizens of affected communities absconded with anything of value from the original scaffold.  As a matter of fact there is still a hangman’s noose in the inventory of the Minnesota Historical Society.  It must be understood that the original scaffold was a tremendous structure, equivalent to the size of a two story house.  And the architecture was the first of it’s kind specifically designed for one purpose.  The United States had never undertaken such a large scale mass execution as with this method.  The construction used a special roping, pulley, and trapdoor technique especially designed for a simultaneous hanging of all the 38 Dakota men.  This unique development of equipment was the first of it’s kind and would never be duplicated in the history of the United States.  The original military request for executions was sent to President Abraham Lincoln was for over 300 Dakota men to be hanged.  Lincoln paired the number to 38 as 300 plus might be politically unacceptable.

The other apprehension with the destruction of the wood was souvenir hunting and or scavenging.  After the original 38 (two other Dakota Chiefs would be hung the next year at Ft. Snelling) were hung their remains were illegally exhumed from a mass grave by the military, prominent doctors and common citizens for sale, exhibition or personal collections.  Therefore the families of many of the executed, murdered and disappeared were never given the opportunity to bury their own dead.  Their family members were never seen or heard from again.  As another matter of fact many bodies of the 38 plus two have to this day have not been repatriated for proper burial.  Rumors of their whereabouts have circulated for generations and it was not until the American Freedom of Religion Act of 1978 that some remains were uncovered and given back to the families including Dakota Chiefs Little Crow and Little Six.  But at the same time many remains like those of  Dakota Chief Medicine Bottle, who was kidnapped in Canada and forcibly returned to the state of Minnesota, have never been properly repatriated and the family still mourns their loss.

I use the comparison of the Jacob Wetterling family and their long quest to locate their missing son who was kidnapped and disappeared in 1989 in St. Joseph, Minnesota.  Jacob’s killer was finally captured and the remains of Jacob were returned to the family for mourning and proper burial.

Many Dakota families have never had that privilege.  The devastating impact that the missing family members have had on today’s Dakota families has been intergenerational.  This is where the destructive force of historical trauma has had a debilitating legacy, and now I understand why many families refused to have sensitive discussions with regard to that difficult period of history.

My first response was shock and disbelief and deep sadness.   I thought how disrespectful and disdainfully egregious, damaging, hurtful, disingenuous to a very proud, and powerful and active Dakota community.  The fact that the scaffold and all of its intricacies was built true to scale was absolutely alarming.  The Walker Art Center plan was to turn the post-exhibition display into a play area for children and families.  Visions of children swinging from the hangman’s nooses horrified me and others, who thought that couldn’t be the truth.  Drinking wine and eating ciabatta bread sandwiches under the scaffold beams just could not be in anyone’s thought process.

It would be akin to giving tours of Japanese internment camps, or firing up facsimile ovens used at Birkenau, or Treblinka.

We weren’t informed of the overall purpose of the “art piece” and the projected goals and aspirations for the teaching moment.  We later learned that it was to be a teaching moment on the execution styles in American History.  Apparently the Walker was seeking to engage a broad discussion around the largest mass hanging in the history of the United States and possibly the world.  All without the consultation and direct involvement of the Dakota community.

There has to be a point in time where a community, any community has to draw a line and seek to quell any affront to its culture, essence and dignity.  In this case it needed to be done right away.  What I found was that there was a fortress of support for the position and response being taken up by the Dakota community and the Indian community in general.   One outstanding component of that support was the Minnesota arts community itself.   The membership of Walker itself, funders, donors, and general public members were also shocked by the erection and magnitude of the scaffold.

Campaign is such a soft word with regard to the position we took.  Protest, demonstration and even potential legal possibilities were all discussed and initiated right away.  The Walker had to meet with several segments of the Indian community in early summer.  These meetings were subjectively dynamic to say the least.  All of the Dakota tribes in Minnesota and several from South Dakota, North Dakota and Manitoba were represented.  The artist, Sam Durant came to realize what it was he had unintentionally incurred in this piece of work.  He apologized for the transgressions and humbly agreed to sign over the copyright to the scaffold to the Dakota community.  The Walker issued several apologies both in writing and in person for the offense.   These discussions are still going on today and we have made some progress.

I did an interview with Laura Waterman Wittstock, Seneca Nation member  on KFAI-First Person Radio on January 10, 2017 in Minneapolis.   In this interview I stated that had there been proper vetting and consultation with the Dakota community there could have been an entirely different outcome.  Having direct participation and involvement would have turned an injustice into a true learning opportunity, possibly with constructive outcomes.  But as I said this is in hindsight, and it seemed to me that we faced a dilemma which has always been prevalent in Indian Country and that’s that we were invisible, and of no or very little consequence.  It’s the “token Indian” syndrome in action, Walker may have taken the word of one person, article and or public construct and decided that it was sufficient and gave it no further notice.

Are there similarities between the confederate statues and this controversy. During the time of deliberation with regard to this historical dilemma, President Lincoln was thinking of using “war time” considerations and consequences for the Dakota Conflict.  But this option was never exercised for whatever reason.  It certainly would have given thought to stopping a mass execution for maybe a more humane sentencing venue of imprisonment and or maybe financial retributions. But the anger, resentment, and animosity of the State of Minnesota gave rise to an immediate and final solution to the Dakota problem in Minnesota.  It also laid the path for the complete and nihilistic exile of all Dakota people in the state to a desolate landscape in the west.  The rules of war as federally held and executed in the 1861-1865 American Civil war was primarily filtered through a racially homogenic lens.  The confederacy was allowed to return to normal after the war.  There were no mass executions, firing squads, and or Guantanamo type imprisonment systems established for the southerners who participated in the war.  They were given an amnesty so as to rejoin the American social system with impunity.

Art has a responsibility to the level of respect that they themselves want to incur upon their own best practices and creative legacy.

The scaffold, the only one of its' kind in that day and time, is not art, was not art, and was never intended to be art or any other structure except that for which it was made, to execute human beings.  We respect an artist’s genre-style and we would respect and honor any other work that may have been done by Sam Durant or other artists who have completed similar projects.

The question is when does art cross the line of artistic expression, or is there an invisible line of acceptance and applause which needs to be met.  Who makes the definitive determination as to whether or not art in whatever form is being a service to the national cultural mores or is it a form of national propaganda.

What we stand on is the fact that as a strong viable community that has chosen to participate in the great American race we would like to be included in the evolution of artistic expression and of any artistic revolution that would use our culture, history, paradigms, standards, and spiritual philosophies and practices as a backdrop or foundation for their work.  That’s one message we are sending.

I think what happened here was that the Walker Art Center, in its enthusiastic pursuit of notoriety became a Minneapolis iconic arts centerpiece that with so much success, could do no wrong.  They became aloof to the very community that existed only a few blocks from their front door, and neglected to deeply research their own project that might have an impact on that same community.

This actually is a common misstep among nonprofits, corporations, and even the government.  To travel so far from your base that you lose touch with grassroots people and organizations.  But that is not to say that it’s an end game of any sort, as a matter of fact many organizations have taken this lesson and have grown in their goals and objectives.  The Minneapolis Institute of Art is one, the United Methodist Church is another.
So we remain in touch with Walker Art Center as they explore an organization shift within their own ranks.  We wish them well and we remain available, but this is a journey that the Walker must and can make on it’s own.   Once the organization institutes changes which they have been in charge of, they can own whatever outcomes result as a transformational moment.