What do you tell a kid about gallows in the sculpture garden?

Aine and I took a trip to the Walker today to get a sneak preview of the new sculpture garden to be unveiled in a week. We have been trying to get sneak peeks for weeks – months really. We have been so excited and anxiously awaiting the new garden. Sadly that’s wasn’t the main reason we went today. We went to see the Scaffold – the work by Sam Durant that was intended to be a commentary on capital punishment but turned out to be a commentary on cultural insensitivity.

The work comprises elements of seven different hangings in US history; most notable for Minnesotans, it includes “elements” of the execution of 38 Dakota men following the US-Dakota war in 1862. The largest one-day execution in American history. (Elements is really a Minnesota understatement – from a distance is looks like the pictures of the scaffold used. A few weeks ago, while scoping out a sneak preview from the bridge by the garden, a friend called it for what it was immediately.)

I won’t go into the details of the war – but there are many questions about the hangings. Native Americans arrested at the end of the war were tried without representation and without knowing the process or procedure of military tribunals. Originally 303 prisoners were convicted of murder and rape and sentenced to death. President Lincoln stepped in to review the cases individually and lowered that number to 38 based on which convictions appeared to be for war crimes versus attacks on civilians. He did so knowing there was great controversy. Minnesota Bishop Henry Whipple asked for leniency. Minnesota Senator Morton Wilkinson warned that many were opposed to leniency.

The men were hanged. They were buried in a mass grave by the riverbank. Rumor has it someone removed skin from some of the men and sold it in Mankato. As if that weren’t bad enough, the grave was robbed and bodies were used for research by local doctors – including William Mayo. (He apparently kept the skeleton in his home. Those remains and other have since been returned to the Dakota Tribe.)

It’s an ugly part of American and Minnesotan history. These men have earned the right to rest in peace and their families need no public reminders of the horrendous acts. We should never forget the atrocity but how we remember is very important. As the protests said – it’s not Durant’s story. It’s not the Walker’s story. It’s certainly not my story.

So it was with some trepidation that Aine and I went – especially since Aine didn’t know the story and I didn’t know all of the details. We showed up and saw the protests signs and the list of 38 names. We heard the drums and got closer to see the drum circle.

Aine had so many questions – mostly why? Why did they want to put gallows in the same garden as Spoon and Cherry and the new Blue Rooster? Why did they think children should play on something so dangerous? (She worried about kids falling; I worried about kids getting desensitized to the structure and the idea of its use.) Why didn’t anyone think about how hurtful it would be the families and tribal communities of the men hanged? Why didn’t they get the Native community involved?

It was hard not to ask all of these questions and not remember the recent Take Over of Twin Cities art by Guerrilla Girls – a reminder to include women and other voices. Or the recent work of Jim Bear Jacobs and others to get legislators to rethink art and imagery of Native Americans at the Capitol. When and how can we learn to consider the importance of our words, actions and art on striving to be our best selves by including everyone?

The Walker is clearly asking some of these questions themselves. They have postponed the opening of the sculpture garden for a week. The Walker worked with the Dakota community to come up with a plan. A native company will remove the structure Friday afternoon. It will be burned ceremoniously by the tribe near Fort Snelling area. The Walker with commission a work by Native artist.

I love the Walker. I believe everyone makes mistakes, it’s just a matter of how you recover from them. I’m hoping to see recovery used as a tool to help shine light on all of Minnesota’s stories – in the first person.

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