A controversial sculpture commemorating the hanging of 38 Dakota Indians has been dismantled and interred in a secret location — with the blessing of its creator.
They are called the Dakota 38.
On December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota, 38 Dakota Indians were led onto a scaffold the size of a two-story house and simultaneously hanged.
It was (and remains) the largest mass execution in U.S. history. But that year, after more than 20,000 casualties at Shiloh and 25,000 at Antietam during the Civil War, headlines did not take much notice of another 38 deaths, especially given the prevailing sentiment at the time about Manifest Destiny.
The moment has been largely forgotten by our non-Native populace, but the traumatic historical event returned to the headlines in May 2017, when Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center unveiled Scaffold as part of the planned reopening of its sculpture garden. The wood and steel sculpture by artist Sam Durant was a representation of seven gallows used in historic U.S. government executions, including that of the Dakota in Mankato. It was designed in a way that allowed visitors to climb the staircases and stand on the gallows platform.
“Scaffold is neither memorial nor monument, and stands against prevailing ideas and normative history,” Durant said in his written statement. “It warns against forgetting the past. In doing so, my hope for Scaffold is to offer a platform for open dialogue and exchange, a place to question not only our past, but the future we form together.”
In spite of his intention, the outcry and criticism were immediate and intense.
Prior to its arrival in Minneapolis, Durant’s sculpture had been exhibited in Scotland, Germany, and at The Hague in the Netherlands. But for the Dakota elders, its display on land once owned by their ancestors was intolerable.
“My first response was shock and disbelief and deep sadness,” says Ron Leith, spokesman for the Dakota Elders Council. “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.”
Memories of Mankato remain vivid among the Dakota descendants. “In our St. Paul, Minnesota, home of the 1950s and ’60s, 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,” Leith recalls. “Even though it had been over 100 years since the Dakota Conflict of 1862 and its tragic aftermath, there was still an inherent fear and apprehension of that conversation in the Dakota community.”
The seeds for the conflict that history books would call The Great Sioux Uprising were planted in 1851, when the Dakota Sioux signed a treaty ceding most of their territory in Minnesota, about 28 million acres, to the U.S. government. In return, the tribe (numbering about 7,000) was to be granted annual payments of $280,000 over 50 years and a 20-by-70-mile reservation. In 1858, a new treaty ceded half of the reservation to the federal government in exchange for increased annuity payments.
In 1862 the payment was late but was on its way when five members of the hungry and desperate Dakota Sioux killed five settlers. The violence escalated, resulting in the deaths of hundreds and entire towns burned to the ground.
Retaliation was swift and severe, culminating in a battle on September 23 at Wood Lake that forced the Dakota to surrender after heavy casualties. In the military tribunal that followed, more than 300 Dakota were sentenced to death.
“The trials of the Dakota were conducted unfairly in a variety of ways,” wrote the late Carol Chomsky, former professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and a scholar of American Indian legal history, in an in-depth (and heavily footnoted) 1990 article, “The United States-Dakota War Trials: A Study in Military Injustice,” for the Stanford Law Review. “The evidence was sparse, the tribunal was biased, the defendants were unrepresented in unfamiliar proceedings conducted in a foreign language, and authority for convening the tribunal was lacking. More fundamentally, neither the Military Commission nor the reviewing authorities recognized that they were dealing with the aftermath of a war fought with a sovereign nation and that the men who surrendered were entitled to treatment in accordance with that status.”
After further examination of the evidence — and, in Chomsky’s estimation, bowing to “enormous pressure on the president to punish the Dakota for the war” — President Abraham Lincoln issued a decision on the fate of the men on December 6, 1862. He reduced the number of condemned to 39 (one would ultimately receive a reprieve), having arrived at the number based on his judgment to approve for execution only those convicted of participating in civilian massacres.
The mass execution took place the day after Christmas.
The following year, the Dakota Sioux were relocated once again, to a reservation in South Dakota.
At the Scene of the Mass Execution
“At 10:00 a.m. 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.
“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 others’ 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.
“Following the mass execution on December 26, it was discovered that two men had been mistakenly hanged. Wicapi Wastedapi (We-chank-wash-ta-don-pee), who went by the common name of Caske (meaning first-born son), reportedly stepped forward when the name ‘Caske’ was called, and was then separated for execution from the other prisoners. The other, Wasicu, was a young white man who had been adopted by the Dakota at an early age. Wasicu had been acquitted.”
Letter from Hdainyanka to Chief Wabasha written shortly before his execution:
“You have deceived me. You told me that if we followed the advice of General Sibley, and gave ourselves up to the whites, all would be well; no innocent man would be injured. I have not killed, wounded or injured a white man, or any white persons. I have not participated in the plunder of their property; and yet to-day I am set apart for execution, and must die in a few days, while men who are guilty will remain in prison. My wife is your daughter, my children are your grandchildren. I leave them all in your care and under your protection. Do not let them suffer; and when my children are grown up, let them know that their father died because he followed the advice of his chief, and without having the blood of a white man to answer for to the Great Spirit.”
Reprinted with permission from the Minnesota Historical Society, mnhs.org. Letter source: History of the Sioux War and Massacres of 1862 and 1863, by Isaac V.D. Heard, NY: Harper & Bros., 1865.
Pavel S. Py, curator of visual arts at Walker Art Center, recalls first seeing Scaffold in Germany back in 2012. “I thought it was an incredibly powerful piece, which I read as a comment on the history of capital punishment and mass incarceration in the United States. I perceived it as a work that addressed a big issue. When I arrived at the Walker, at which point plans for the sculpture garden had already been completed, I had not foreseen how the work would resonate.”
The artist was similarly surprised, and after meetings with Dakota elders and museum officials, all parties involved agreed that Scaffold should come down. Durant signed over the copyright of the piece to the Dakota people and left the fate of the sculpture in their hands.
“Of course the first reaction of many was to burn the wood,” Leith says. “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. 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.”
That decision did not sit well with everyone, including anti-censorship groups. Considered alongside the removal of statues of Confederate soldiers and generals throughout the South, it raises the question of whether art has an inherent right to exist or should be subject to the discretion of the community.
“It’s a really interesting question that I believe everyone is wrestling with,” Py says. “We are living in a moment in the U.S. where the culture is so polarized that it triggers very strong responses. These topics are also being argued on social media, which produces very rapid and loud exchanges that are not as productive as they could be.”
However, both sides agree that had there been some discussion of Scaffold and its inspiration prior to the sculpture going on display, the furor may have been avoided. “Walker did not reach out to the Native American community to discuss this work. We failed in having those dialogues,” Py admits.
“[Had] there been proper vetting and consultation with the Dakota community, there could have been an entirely different outcome,” Leith says. “Having direct participation and involvement would have turned an injustice into a true learning opportunity, possibly with constructive outcomes.”
But in the end, even that might not have been enough to save the sculpture.
“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,” Leith says. “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.”
From the August/September 2018 issue.