Sculpture that sparked protests in Mpls. will be buried, not burned

Published 6:36 pm Monday, September 4, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — Tribal elders have decided that wood from a sculpture that sparked protests at a Minneapolis art museum will be buried, not burned.

“Scaffold” ignited a firestorm of criticism after it was built this spring at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden outside the Walker Art Center. Los Angeles artist Sam Durant intended it as a commentary on capital punishment. The two-story sculpture depicted elements of gallows used in seven U.S. hangings, including the scaffold on which 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato in 1862 in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Dakota leaders denounced the work as an insensitive reminder of a still-painful chapter of their history and said they should have been consulted before it was installed. The Walker ordered it dismantled in June and turned the wood turned over to the Dakota. The initial plan was to burn it near Fort Snelling, where many American Indians were imprisoned after the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War that led to the executions in Mankato.

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But Donald Leith, a Dakota elders committee member involved in the negotiations, said Friday they decided instead to bury the wood in a secret place, sometime in mid-September, after consulting with prominent Sioux spiritual leader Chief Arvol Looking Horse.

Arvol Looking Horse was adamant that the wood must not be burned, Leith said.

“The wood has a spiritual nature that is inherent to itself in Lakota-Dakota tradition,” Leith told the Star Tribune. “Of the four elements — fire, water, air, earth — you cannot use any of the elements in a disparaging fashion without putting yourself in a position of being disrespectful. To use fire to burn this wood that has a negative stigma attached to it — that is not allowed.”

Leith said the decision to keep the burial place secret also recalls the mass hanging.

“During 1862, when the original scaffold was dismantled and the prisoners were buried … there was a deluge of scavengers, grave diggers, that went after the wood — souvenir, hunter types,” said Leith. “We have a concern that if we were to disclose where the wood was going, we might see a repeat of that same thing.”

Officials with the Walker Art Center said they continue to talk with the Dakota community and respect their decision regarding the wood.