A sign reads "Native Trauma Is Not Art" in protest of the "Scaffold" sculpture that was taken down at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in June 2017. Photo: Lori Shaull
Arts & Entertainment | National

Controversy lingers over 'Scaffold' sculpture depicting hangings of Dakota men

A museum in Minnesota continues to face questions in connection with a controversial sculpture that depicted the execution of 38 Dakota men in 1862.

Olga Viso, the executive director of the Walker Art Center, apologized for displaying the "Scaffold" sculpture without considering the views of the Dakota people. After meeting with a committee of elders, she agreed to have the piece taken down and to work more closely with the tribal community.

"As director of the Walker, I regret that I did not better anticipate how the work would be received in Minnesota, especially by Native audiences," Viso wrote in a May 25 open letter to The Circle News, a Native publication in Minneapolis. 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."

But Dakota elders aren't sure Viso is going to follow up on her promises or accept their recommendations, The New York Times reported. Among other suggestions, they are seeking a spot on the museum's board to represent the tribal community.

“We really haven’t gotten anywhere,” elder Ron Leith told the paper.

“The Dakota community hasn’t felt heard, hasn’t been reached out to or communicated with on this issue,” added Kate Beane, a Dakota historian, in comments to the paper.

Smooth Feather Productions: DAKOTA 38

The board also appears concerned and has hired a law firm to look into the incident, The Times reported. Viso was the one who convinced the museum to buy "Scaffold" back in 2014 for $450,000, the paper said.

The events leading up to the Dakota execution of December 26, 1862, are well known in Minnesota history. A total of 303 Dakota men were sentenced to death or their alleged roles in the Dakota War.

According to historical accounts, then-president Abraham Lincoln reviewed the military trial records himself and commuted the sentences of 264 of the prisoners, leaving 39 to face deaths by hanging. One Dakota man was granted a reprieve while the remaining 38 were executed in Mankato.

The "Scaffold" piece was meant to represent the gallows used during the hangings. It was set up for display in the newly renovated Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center until protests by the Dakota community.

The sculpture was dismantled in early June under the supervision of the Dakota elders committee. The metal elements are being recycled, while the wood parts will be buried at an undisclosed location, according to news reports.

Read More on the Story:
Walker Art Center’s Reckoning With ‘Scaffold’ Isn’t Over Yet (The New york Times September 13, 2017)
Sculpture that sparked protests will be buried, not burned (The Associated Press September 3, 2017)
Wood from controversial 'Scaffold' sculpture to be buried in secret location (The Minneapolis Star Tribune September 1, 2017)
Dakota Plan to Bury, Not Burn, ‘Scaffold’ Sculpture (The New York Times September 1, 2017)
Dakota People Are Debating Whether to Burn ‘Scaffold’ Fragments (The New York Times June 5, 2017)