ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Tomorrow, a sculpture that was recently installed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden will be dismantled. Later on, it will be burned in a ceremony. This was not the original intention of the artist. As Minnesota Public Radio's Euan Kerr reports, the sculpture is coming down because of its connection to an infamous incident from more than 150 years ago.
EUAN KERR, BYLINE: If you were just passing Sam Durant's huge wooden structure in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, you could easily mistake it for a two-story-high jungle gym. Indeed, it's designed to be climbed and explored, as Durant explained in a 2014 video.
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SAM DURANT: Maybe you're not sure quite what it is, but it looks interesting. It looks playful. It's something that kids might think of as a big, yeah, jungle gym kind of thing.
KERR: Durant intended for that playfulness to draw people into a more serious conversation. The work is called "Scaffold," and it's a commentary on capital punishment in the U.S. It includes design elements from gallows used in seven historic executions, including those of abolitionist John Brown and Saddam Hussein.
But last week, the Walker Art Center, which manages the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, revealed that "Scaffold" also includes a reference to the mass hanging of 38 Dakota men following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Within hours, native people had set up a protest site outside the garden. Sam Wounded Knee, a Crow Creek Dakota, was there.
SAM WOUNDED KNEE: This is a murder machine that killed our people because we were hungry.
KERR: The war began when a local agency refused to deliver promised food to starving Dakota. The mass hanging in nearby Mankato, Minn., that followed the war is the largest in U.S. history. And 155 years later, the pain has not diminished. Speaking at a press conference at the Walker yesterday, Dakota elder Sheldon Wolfchild said he was stunned the museum had not consulted the community.
SHELDON WOLFCHILD: It was beyond our comprehension that this could actually happen.
KERR: Wolfchild spoke after a mediation session among elders, the Walker, the Minneapolis Park Board and artist Sam Durant. Durant said his intention was to raise questions about government-sanctioned executions. He included a reference to Mankato because it was the largest U.S. mass hanging. The work has been exhibited in Germany and Scotland, but he realizes with its installation so close to the actual tragedy, he should have talked to the people living with the history.
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DURANT: And again, I just wanted to apologize for the trauma, the suffering that my work has caused.
KERR: The mediation group decided the best course is to dismantle "Scaffold" and then some time later burn it after a Dakota ceremony at Fort Snelling. It was the site of an infamous prison camp where many Dakota died after the war.
For its part, the Walker also apologized and said it will work to improve communication with the Dakota community. That includes commissioning native artists, perhaps even something to fill the space left by "Scaffold's" removal. For NPR News, I'm Euan Kerr in Minneapolis.
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