Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Walker to discuss ‘Scaffold’ sculpture’s future with Dakota Elders

MinnPost photo by Pamela Espeland
“Scaffold” with signs on fence

The grand re-opening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, scheduled for Saturday, June 3, has been postponed a week to Saturday, June 10. It was going to be a free, daylong public party for the multimillion-dollar renovation, with a ribbon cutting, live music, DJs, dance, art-making activities and more. Maybe it will still be all that; maybe it will be something very different.

Changing the date gives the Walker Art Center and the community a bit of breathing room between now and the re-opening, which everyone needs. In case you spent the Memorial Day weekend out of town and away from the news and the Internet, here’s why.

On Thursday, May 25, the Walker’s executive director, Olga Viso, published an article on the Walker’s blog called “Cultivating the Garden for Art: Curatorial and Civic Thinking Behind a Reanimated Green Space.” She discussed the history of the garden and its value to the city and the state, the partnership between the Walker and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the campus-wide changes at the Walker and how the Walker chose the art to be displayed in the Garden, including 18 new works.

Among the new works is “Scaffold” by Los Angeles-based artist Sam Durant, with whom the Walker has had a relationship; he was artist-in-residence there in 2002. A steel-and-wood platform that “layers together the designs of seven pieces of historical architecture – each one used in significant executions in U.S. history,” it forms “a unique survey of the history of capital punishment in U.S. history.” Until you know what it is, it looks like a piece of old-fashioned playground equipment. Stairs lead up to the platform. You’re meant to climb them, walk on the surface and look around.

When “Scaffold” was acquired by the Walker, it had a history of successful exhibitions at the prestigious dOCUMENTA (13) show in Kassel, Germany; The Hague in the Netherlands; and the Jupiter Artland sculpture park in Edinburgh, Scotland. In those places, it was received as thought-provoking, sobering and meaningful. But it wasn’t personal.

For many Minnesotans who learned late last week about the sculpture, it was stunningly, excruciatingly personal. “Scaffold” is another word for “gallows.” One of the designs Durant brought into his piece was the gallows where 38 Dakota men were executed in Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862, on orders of President Abraham Lincoln. The largest mass execution in American history continues to cause – and will always cause – great trauma for Native people and relatives of the men who were hanged.

The news that “Scaffold” would be a permanent part of the Sculpture Garden – it had already been installed near the iconic “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” but without most people knowing what it was – lit a fuse. The response was immediate, fierce and widespread. Native people weren’t the only ones who condemned the sculpture. They were joined on Facebook and Twitter (#TakeItDown) by non-Native artists, tribal groups, arts leaders, community leaders, politicians and other supporters. On Friday and Saturday, protesters gathered outside the chain-link fence surrounding the Garden, hung signs on the fence and wrote on the sidewalks with chalk.

On Friday, Viso wrote an open letter to “The Circle,” a publication devoted to Native American news and arts. In “Learning in Public: An Open Letter on Sam Durant’s ‘Scaffold,’” she followed a statement about freedom of expression with this: “We recognize, however, that the siting of ‘Scaffold’ in our state, on a site that is only a short distance from Mankato, raises unique concerns. We recognize the decision to exhibit this work might cause some to question the Walker’s sensitivity to Native audiences and audiences in Minnesota more familiar with this dark history. … Because the structure can serve as a gathering space, which allowed visitors to explore it in un-ceremonial ways, we realize it requires heightened attention and education in all of our visitor orientation and interpretation. … This is a deep learning moment.”

Courtesy of the artist, Blum & Poe, Paula Cooper Gallery, Praz-Delavallade and Sadie Coles HQ
Sam Durant, Scaffold, 2012 Wood, metal. 33.73′ x 47.47′ x 51.77′. Collection Walker Art Center; Purchased with funds provided by the Frederick Weisman Collection of Art, 2014. Photo by Rosa Maria Ruehling . Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13)

That evening, the Walker tweeted, “We have been listening to feedback regarding the ‘Scaffold’ artwork in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.”

By Saturday, the signs posted Friday by the protesters had been removed. The protests continued and more signs were added. City Pages published a piece by Anishinaabe artist and writer Ashley Fairbanks titled “Genocide and mini-golf in the Walker Sculpture Garden.” (The Walker’s Artist-Designed Mini Golf has been a popular Sculpture Garden attraction.) Dakota activist and artist Graci Horne, who is related to one of the Dakota 38, circulated an email describing the sculpture and plans for a “peaceful and prayerful demonstration.” Horne noted that “Dakota People and Various Supporting Native relatives have started to keep space at the nearest location to the sculpture which is on Bryant Avenue S and Kenwood Pkwy.” A new website, Not Art 38 + 2, was born.

The writing was on the fence, the sidewalk – and the wall. Things were escalating. The opening was approaching. It seemed likely that June 3 would be more demonstration than celebration, historic for reasons other than planned.

On Saturday afternoon, Viso released a statement on the Walker’s Facebook page saying, in part: “I regret the pain that this artwork has brought to the Dakota community and others. Prompted by the outpouring of community feedback, the artist Sam Durant is open to many outcomes including the removal of the sculpture. He has told me, ‘It’s just wood and metal – nothing compared to the lives and histories of the Dakota people.’ I am in agreement with the artist that the best way to move forward is to have ‘Scaffold’ dismantled in some manner and to listen and learn from the Elders.”

That day, artist Sam Durant released his own statement saying, in part: “I made ‘Scaffold’ as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists. … [Your] protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people. I offer my deepest apologies for my thoughtlessness. I should have reached out to the Dakota community the moment I knew that the sculpture would be exhibited at the Walker Art Center in proximity to Mankato.”

On Sunday afternoon, Viso and Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Superintendent Jayne Miller released a joint statement announcing the postponement of the re-opening. Between now and then:

•  Tonight (Tuesday, May 30), Dakota Elders will meet with members of the Dakota community to decide on next steps, including which 12 Elders will attend a face-to-face mediation Wednesday with the Walker, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and artist Sam Durant.

•  The private mediation will take place on Wednesday morning.

•  A public statement will be released at 2 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon.

We don’t yet know how or whether the postponement will affect other events related to the re-opening, including the Walker Wide Open Party planned for Thursday, June 8.

To be clear, this wasn’t the first time that anyone outside of the Walker had heard of “Scaffold.” A press release sent in January 2016 included a description of Durant’s work. It did not, however, go into detail about which gallows were represented. We should all have started asking questions back then.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by tom kendrick on 05/30/2017 - 12:47 pm.

    The Walker fiasco

    What, exactly, is the criticism of the presentation at the Walker of this piece of art? Is it because the local Natives were not contacted and they would, understandably, feel a visceral response to the reference to the hangings of 1862? That’s a fair complaint, and I am glad all parties are meeting to work this out. (Would that our governing bodies did the same.)
    But if the criticism is that this piece of art jars the senses and forces a new reflection on issues of this day, and specifically skeletons from our state’s past, then the work is doing exactly what true art is supposed to do.

    My wife went to the teachers’ open house the previous night, and while there she learned that the artwork attempts to connect the playground appearance with the gallows, and recalls the old practice of hangings and executions as public entertainment. This is a powerful statement, that we would watch people die -in fact, sanctioned by the state -as a means of a pleasant past time.
    Anyone with even a vague awareness of history knows that the white audience for these events were culpable in these atrocities. In fact, we whites still carry this burden, as well as the unrelieved and largely unexplored guilt.
    That an artist would attempt to open these dark pages for more critical examination is a brave action. I urge us to continue to look at our country’s treatment of Natives -and Blacks, while we’re at it – and try to put these ghosts to rest once and for all.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Cahill on 05/30/2017 - 01:03 pm.


    I am not a Native American. I’m just an old white guy. But when I first happened to view a photograph of the artwork in question while browsing on line, I recognized it immediately as the gallows used to conclude the Dakota War. And that without reading the caption or any previous article, tweet or other discussion. I have been a resident of Minnesota for about 50 years and I have bothered to inform myself about the history of the state with the excellent assistance of the Minnesota Historical Society. I did take advantage of their recent documentation and discussion of the .Dakota War upon its 150 year “anniversary”. And I was awake during the recent brouhaha over the removal/relocation of several artworks depicting treaty signing ceremonies from the Governor’s Reception Room during the renovation of the State Capitol. So to see this replica of the gallows on which 38 Dakota men were executed plunked down in the renovated sculpture garden masquerading as an oversized jungle gym next to the Spoon and Cherry is mind boggling and shocking.

    I have also been a fan of the Walker and long valued its role in injecting breath of a cosmopolitan or avant-garde point of view of reality into our sometimes phlegmatic local culture. But is difficult to imagine how in the entire staff and apparatus of the Walker organization this project could have gotten to within weeks of completion without anyone noticing what a colossal bad idea this would be. Wake up !

  3. Submitted by Kim Munholland on 05/30/2017 - 04:22 pm.

    The Walker’s “Scaffold’

    The artist’s comments are revealing. They show that the artist suffers from exactly the blindness that he intends to remedy. What is the social or aesthetic value of this work of art? I fear that under Ms. Vigo’s leadership the Walker has lost its way.

  4. Submitted by Alicia Lebens on 05/30/2017 - 05:32 pm.

    Better communication was needed

    In my experience as a white Minnesotan, the Native American groups in our state have been open and welcoming when given opportunities to share their history and culture. The execution in Mankato is a painful part of history that very few people outside of the Dakota communities seem to know about. Education and art have always gone hand in hand, and a sculpture such as this one could have been a powerful piece of storytelling if given the proper context, education and – foremost – direction from the Dakota communities. I have visited a concentration camp in Germany that, while horrifying, gave better context and understanding to the Holocaust. The key part, however, was that the displays and monuments were constructed with the direction and support of the Jewish people. This sculpture could have been a way for a greater number of people to have a better understanding of our shared history, but the clear lack of communication with Native American groups is very disappointing.

  5. Submitted by Arthur Himmelman on 05/30/2017 - 09:52 pm.

    A gallows posing as art in the Walker sculpture garden

    One obvious reason the Walker Sculpture Garden is not an appropriate setting for Scaffold is that it was designed to exhibit fanciful and visually stimulating works of art and as a place where a wide variety of people go to enjoy their particular experience of art. Carolyn Brown Zniewski made this point well:

    “No doubt at all this piece should not be located in the sculpture garden. Just like the Holocaust Museum is a place of sorrow and contemplation, so should a piece of this nature be located in a setting of seriousness and gravitas. To put it in a garden where people have concerts, picnics and wedding receptions is like dancing upon graves. ”

    This is not to say Scaffold is inappropriate for other settings or that it is not useful for engaging people in serious discussions of our history and its injustices. Any claim that there is “censorship” involved in Walker’s decision to dismantle is clearly not the case. It is Walker’s choice based on its reassessment of the original decision to install it.

    I am confident Dakota Elders will do what is necessary to address and take appropriate action on the issues raised by Scaffold based on their conversations with members of their community, the Walker Art Center board president and vice president, and the artist, Sam Durant. However, I believe Olga Viso, the director of the Walker Art Center, should resign as a matter of basic decency, to show respect for all those offended, uphold the integrity and professional standards of the Walker, and accept her personal accountability for her decisions.

  6. Submitted by Mike martin on 05/31/2017 - 01:09 am.

    comments from a native women Graci Horne

    May 27, 2017

    Mitakuyapi, Anpetu Waste Yuha,
    Good Day Relatives,

    I am writing this with a saddened heart but hopeful lens on the current situation regarding the Sam Durant sculpture named “Scaffold.” Myself and other Dakota and Various Supporting Native relatives have started to keep space at the nearest location to the sculpture which is on Bryant Avenue S and Kenwood PKWY.

    As a group, we are supporting the Elders to guide and speak on behalf of the community. A group of Elders have been decided upon as they are relatives that reflect the Dakota Oyate at large. Our Dakota Elders have kept our stories alive the longest, therefore they are speaking on our behalf. As we all know, Dakota people were banished from Mni Sota, leaving only four bands that were legal to stay in state. As a people, we are scattered to South Dakota, North Dakota, and Canada. This is not a local issue, this is a decision that caused a situation that impacted all of Dakota bands.

    Sam Durant is an L.A. based Non-Native Artist that created a sculpture replicating the hanging scaffold that hung 38 Dakota Warriors on December 26, 1862 in Mankato, MN. He created the sculpture in 2012, commemorating the 150th year of the Dakota Execution. This sculpture has since traveled Internationally. Walker Art Center is claiming responsibility and have asked for consultations with community. The Elders have requested a time to sit down the Director Olga Viso in the next few days. They are asking Walker Art Center to take down the sculpture and requesting for the Artist to attend the meeting, so they can tell him to stop touring the sculpture.

    The sculpture is as large as a two-story house, it is a wooden structure that is raised in the air by a steel frame. The opening of the Sculpture Garden is on June 3, 2017 at noon. However, the structure is not safe yet, so it will not be ready for the public to interact with till a later date in June. As was explained to us yesterday, they are planning to put padding below the hanging scaffold so it will be safe for children and their patrons to walk on it. This sculpture is located right by the road entrance next to the mini gulf course.
    At this time, the Elders have asked the Native Community and Ally Communities for a peaceful and prayerful demonstration. I have included some guidelines to help our site to stay safe. This is a large concern as they do not want anyone to get hurt by getting targeted for violence. If anyone recalls the Philando Castile demonstrations held by our friends Black Lives Matter, they were shot at from a truck by young White males at night. We are currently in a time of crisis where the U.S. Government has provoked hate crimes on POC communities. Our Women, Elders and Children (Sececa) are present and we need to be able to watch out for each other by not creating an unsafe space.

    Creating Safe Space:
    – Peaceful demonstration
    – No use of profanity as children and Elders are present at the site
    – Keep alert always
    -Watch out for each other and older ones call out inappropriate behavior
    -Inform the public (many Non-Native people do not know our history. They are coming to learn and be informed. This is everyone’s responsibility, so if you are there, please visually look for cues of visitors who may want to ask questions)
    -Stay in prayer
    -Don’t be afraid to tell someone to act right
    -No Drugs or Alcohol
    -No Weapons

    We have started a contact list and an arrestables list to keep everyone informed of action plans and important information. If you would like to be put on either of those lists, feel free to respond to this email with your information. As of now we need art supplies in the form of canvas drop cloths that are sold in places like Home Depot, we also need spray paint and zip ties.

    Guidelines for Ally’s:
    -Stay Safe
    -Ask if you don’t understand protocols and follow safety protocols
    -Do not use profanity or violence as it does not reflect the Dakota Oyate
    -No Drugs or Alcohol
    -No Weapons
    -Stay in Peace and Prayer with us

    I have included the history of the Dakota 38 Execution for your printing pleasure. We are asking for your help to print this off to hand out at the site. Please keep this coming week in your prayers for a peaceful resolution and above all the sculpture be taken down.

    Pidama for your help and your prayers.

    Graci Horne

    You Are on Dakota Makoce (Land)

    Mni Sota- Minnesota, is the ancestral land of the Dakota Oyate (Nation). In the beginning of the colonization of Minnesota, the U.S. Government was violently forcing Dakota People to cede land. The Dakota People thought that if they ceded land to assimilate to keep the peace, they would in return gain rights for farming and education.

    What brought about the hanging of 38 Dakota Warriors in Minnesota December 26, 1862 was the failure of the U.S. Government to honor its treaties. Dakota People were not given the money or food set forth to them for signing a treaty to turn over more than a million acres of their land and be forced to live on a reservation.

    French Traders who owned the trade stores, where money, food, and supplies were given by the Government to the Dakota people, was kept and sold to White settlers. The quality of food that was given to the Dakotas was spoiled and not fit for a dog to eat. It was illegal for the Dakota people to hunt on their lands. Dakota hunting parties went off the reservation land looking for food to feed their families, in the history books told by the Minnesota Historical Society “one hunting group took eggs from a White settler’s land, this led to the murder of a young Dakota man, which set forth the Dakota War.”

    Our oral history that has been kept alive by our Elders paints a drastically different story. This is the true accounts of what happened in summer of 1861- A European Family who had recently immigrated to Minnesota to farm had hired a Dakota boy to work on their farm. In Europe, the price for thievery or other crimes were harsh and inhumane punishments. The young Dakota boy took an egg from the chicken coup owned by the European family. The Male Owner beheaded the boy as a form of punishment. The boy’s older brother came to check on the younger brother, only to find that his brother was dead. Horrified and heartbroken the older brother and other Warriors asked the council and Chiefs for a revenge act. In the traditional way, any action that is representative of the people had to be approved by the Elders council and Chiefs. The Warriors had enough of their female relatives that were getting raped and decided to include the this to be a part of the revenge act. This was then granted and they went on to killing the European Farmer, as well as targeting only the people that were doing physical harm onto Dakota People. This is what started the war of 1862.

    Information below tells how President Lincoln and Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey set out to exterminate Dakota from their home land.

    On November 7, 1862, a group of Dakotas, primarily women, children and elders, were force-marched in a four-mile long procession from the Lower Sioux Agency to Fort Snelling. Many of them did not survive. Authorities in Minnesota asked President Lincoln to order the immediate execution of all 303 Dakota males found guilty. Lincoln was concerned with how this would play with the Europeans, whom he was afraid were about to enter the war on the side of the South. He offered the following compromise to the politicians of Minnesota: They would pare the list of those to be hung down to 39. In return, Lincoln promised to kill or remove every Dakota from the state and provide Minnesota with 2 million dollars in federal funds. Remember, he only owed the Dakotas 1.4 million for the land.

    On December 26, 1862, the Great Emancipator ordered the largest mass execution in American History, where the guilt of those to be executed was entirely in doubt. Regardless of how Lincoln defenders seek to play this, it was nothing more than murder to obtain the land of the Dakota and to appease his political cronies in Minnesota.

    On December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged at Mankato.

    At 10:00 am on December 26, 38 Dakota prisoners were led to a scaffold specially constructed for their execution. One had been given a reprieve at the last minute. An estimated 4,000 spectators crammed the streets of Mankato and surrounding land. Col. Stephen Miller, charged with keeping the peace in the days leading up to the hangings, had declared martial law and had banned the sale and consumption of alcohol within a ten-mile radius of the town.


    The instrument upon which the extreme sentence of the law was to be performed, was constructed in a very simple yet most ingenious manner. It was erected upon the main street, directly opposite the jail, and between it and the river. The shape of this structure was a perfect square, and not, as has been stated, a diamond. The cause of this latter error being made was because the sides of the structure was not parallel with the front line of the jail; but being built on an oblique across the roadway presented a point or angle to both the river and jail. The base of the gallows consisted of a square formed by four rough logs, one foot each in diameter, and twenty feet long. >From each corner of this square rose a heavy round pole, running up to a height of twenty feet, while from the centre came another but heavier timber, rising to about the same height. At an elevation of six feet from the ground was a platform, so constructed as to slide easily up and down the corner pillars, and with a large opening in the centre around the middle mast or post. From each corner of this platform a rope or cable was fastened to a movable iron ring that slid up and down middle mast by means of a rope fastened to one of its sides. This rope was taken to the top of the mast, run through a pulley, and returned to a point between the ground and the second frame or platform, and made fast. The mechanism of the whole thing consisted in raking the platform by means of the pulley, and then making the rope fast, when by a blow from an ax by a man standing in the centre of the square, the platform falls; the large opening in its centre protects the executioner from being crushed by the fall. About eight feet above the platform, when in its raised position, was another frame similar to the ground square, morticed into the corner pillars. Into these timbers were cut notches, ten on each side of the frame, at equal distances, and a short piece of rope was passed around the beam of each notch, and tied securely.

    As the men took their assigned places on the scaffold, they sang a Dakota song as white muslin coverings were pulled over their faces. Drumbeats signaled the start of the execution. The men grasped each other’s hands. With a single blow from an ax, the rope that held the platform was cut. Capt. William Duley, who had lost several members of his family in the attack on the Lake Shetek settlement, cut the rope.

    After dangling from the scaffold for a half hour, the men’s bodies were cut down and hauled to a shallow mass grave on a sandbar between Mankato’s main street and the Minnesota River. Before morning, most of the bodies had been dug up and taken by physicians for use as medical cadavers.

    Chief Little Crow and Medicine Bottle were apprehended at the Canadian Border. They were drugged and brought back to be executed. This is the meaning for 38 + 2, 38 Warriors were hung and 2 Chiefs were executed later.

    In Minnesota today, the legacy of the white, male monopoly over the historiography of the Dakota War lives on. Minnesota has Pope, Ramsey and Sibley counties. There are several sites, including Sibley State Park, whose namesakes belong to the deceivers of the Dakota. These men are celebrated; Minnesota children grow up believing them to be heroes.

    Remember their Names:
    1.Ta-ta-ka-gay (Wind Maker) was implicated in the death of Amos W. Huggins, a teacher at La Qui Parle. (Image courtesy 1. Ta-he-do-ne-cha, (One who forbids his house.)
    2. Plan-doo-ta, (Red Otter.)
    3. Wy-a-tah-ta-wa, (His People.)
    4. Hin-hau-shoon-ko-yag-ma-ne, (One who walks clothed in an Owl’s Tail.)
    5. Ma-za-bom-doo, (Iron Blower.)
    6. Wak-pa-doo-ta, (Red Leaf.)
    7. Wa-he-hua, _____.
    8. Sua-ma-ne, (Tinkling Walker.)
    9. Ta-tay-me-ma, (Round Wind) — respited.
    10. Rda-in-yan-ka, (Rattling Runner.)
    11. Doo-wau-sa, (The Singer.)
    12. Ha-pau, (Second child of a son.)
    13. Shoon-ka-ska, (White Dog.)
    14. Toon-kau-e-cha-tag-ma-ne, (One who walks by his Grandfather.)
    15. E-tay-doo-tay, (Red Face.)
    16. Am-da-cha, (Broken to Pieces.)
    17. Hay-pe-pau, (Third child of a son.)
    18. Mah-pe-o-ke-na-jui, (Who stands on the Clouds.)
    19. Harry Milord, (Half Breed.)
    20. Chas-kay-dau, (First born of a son.)
    21. Baptiste Campbell, _____.
    22. Ta-ta-ka-gay, (Wind Maker.)
    23. Hay-pin-kpa, (The Tips of the Horn.)
    24. Hypolite Auge, (Half-breed.)
    25. Ka-pay-shue, (One who does not Flee.)
    26. Wa-kau-tau-ka, (Great Spirit.)
    27. Toon-kau-ko-yag-e-na-jui, (One who stands clothed with his Grandfather.)
    28. Wa-ka-ta-e-na-jui, (One who stands on the earth.)
    29. Pa-za-koo-tay-ma-ne, (One who walks prepared to shoot.)
    30. Ta-tay-hde-dau, (Wind comes home.)
    31. Wa-she-choon, (Frenchman.)
    32. A-c-cha-ga, (To grow upon.)
    33. Ho-tan-in-koo, (Voice that appears coming.)
    34. Khay-tan-hoon-ka, (The Parent Hawk.)
    35. Chau-ka-hda, (Near the Wood.)
    36 Hda-hin-hday, (To make a rattling voice.)
    37. O-ya-tay-a-kee, (The Coming People.)
    38. Ma-hoo-way-ma, (He comes for me.)
    39. Wa-kin-yan-wa, (Little Thunder.)

Leave a Reply