A New Public Hanging? Sam Durant’s Scaffold

By Roger Nichols

Pho­to Cred­it: Lorie Shaull

In 2017, just five years after a Min­neso­ta art exhi­bi­tion marked the 150th anniver­sary of the 1862 hang­ing of 38 Dako­ta Sioux men at Manka­to, that gris­ly event drew new pub­lic atten­tion. Well-known mul­ti-media artist Sam Durant – whose instal­la­tions often focus on events from Amer­i­can his­to­ry – erect­ed his lat­est work, a two-sto­ry wood-and-met­al sculp­ture enti­tled Scaf­fold, in the gar­den of the Walk­er Art Muse­um in Minneapolis.

While his art works have appeared all over the world – receiv­ing crit­i­cal acclaim in New York, Los Ange­les as well as in Paris, Ghent, Ger­many, Scot­land, and New Zealand – this new instal­la­tion caused imme­di­ate protests from Dako­ta Sioux trib­al lead­ers who object­ed that it brought renewed atten­tion to the 1862 mass hang­ings in Min­neso­ta. Oth­er Indi­an groups and their sup­port­ers cre­at­ed a storm of protest that led to the dis­man­tling of Scaf­fold and caused a debate through­out the art world over pub­lic cen­sor­ship, the role of art in soci­ety, and trib­al sensitivities.

While defend­ing his work as a state­ment on cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, Durant said that the piece was meant to rep­re­sent “the gal­lows used in sev­en hang­ings from 1859 to 2006 sanc­tioned by the U.S. gov­ern­ment” and his objec­tions to “America’s his­to­ry of state vio­lence and the death penal­ty.”  How­ev­er, his remarks omit­ted any ref­er­ence to the vic­tims, the places, or the times the events occurred. Hav­ing already dis­played Scaf­fold at the largest art exhi­bi­tion world­wide – the doc­u­men­ta –in Ger­many in 2012  and at Jupiter Art­land in Scot­land two years lat­er, the bit­ter pub­lic attacks in Min­neapo­lis caught the artist by surprise.

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After a meet­ing between muse­um and city offi­cials as well as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the four rec­og­nized Dako­ta tribes, the exhi­bi­tion was final­ly can­celled and Scaf­fold dis­man­tled. Author­i­ties agreed to have the wood removed and tak­en to an area near Fort Snelling which has his­tor­i­cal impor­tance for the Dako­ta peo­ple. Whether trib­al elders will hold a cer­e­mo­ni­al burn­ing or bury the remains of Scaf­fold in a secret loca­tion in Min­neso­ta, remains to be seen.

Durant had no imme­di­ate com­ment about that deci­sion but released the fol­low­ing pub­lic state­ment: “In bring­ing these trou­bling and com­plex his­to­ries of nation­al impor­tance to the fore, it was my inten­tion not to cause pain or suf­fer­ing, but to speak against the con­tin­ued mar­gin­al­iza­tion of these sto­ries and peo­ples, and to build aware­ness around their sig­nif­i­cance.” His words might have calmed some angry feel­ings; the inci­dent itself, how­ev­er, sub­stan­tial­ly dam­aged rec­on­cil­i­a­tion between Native and non-Native peo­ple in Min­neso­ta and will con­tin­ue to over­shad­ow the events at Mankato.


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Roger L. Nichols, Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry and Affil­i­ate Fac­ul­ty in Indi­an Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ari­zona, has pub­lished eleven books on Amer­i­can fron­tier and Indi­an top­ics. His strange new hob­by is giv­ing papers at Euro­pean Amer­i­can Stud­ies conferences.