Taking It Down: a sacred call for deconstructing oppression

June 7, 2017 | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

On June 2, 2017, over 300 people gathered in downtown Minneapolis on the grounds of the Walker Art Museum’s redesigned sculpture garden, not quite finished and not yet opened, to witness the ceremonial deconstruction of an installation titled “Scaffold.” Designed by artist Sam Durant, “Scaffold” was modeled after a gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota in 1862, the largest public execution in the history of the U.S.. A week before the planned reopening of the sculpture garden, the Walker engaged Dakota elders in a conversation about “Scaffold” and its possible impact on local audiences. Protests immediately called for its removal, and within one week, the Walker had postponed the garden’s reopening, participated in an independently mediated conversation with Dakota elders and the artist, and agreed to dismantle the installation in a public ceremony planned and led by Dakota elders.  Other posts on-line offer more information about the sculpture and its deconstruction.  

This reflection is based on my experience of the June 2 ceremony, with the hope of sharing the sorrow, the power and the call of that day’s events. The quotes are all from Sheldon Wolfchild’s opening words, delivered before the sacred ceremony began (which we were asked not to record out of respect). The wooden structure required four days to dismantle; the “Scaffold’s” understructure of steel and cement was then broken down by the Walker and also removed.  

Taking It Down: a sacred call for deconstructing oppression

June 2, 2017: It is a hot summer’s day. Sun high in the blue sky. A crowd of over 300 gathers, a drum beats, a song thrums. Sheldon Wolfchild, Dakota elder from the Lower Sioux Agency, addresses the crowd. He says:

This is a sacred process…. Let us remember what this historical truth has brought us.

Behind him a newly constructed wooden scaffold looms. Unlike the gallows built in Mankato in the dead of winter 155 years earlier, after which it is modeled, this one is solid and built to last. Its beams are treated to withstand all weather, its foundation is cement, its invisible supports made of steel. The photos of it published in the previous week do not begin to represent its ominous presence and menacing energy. Wolfchild continues:

This is a sacred process to dismantle negativity. Let us all work together in one prayer from the heart, not the mind, as our elders say.

My heart aches to stand in the presence of this structure. What ancient sorrow is stirring in me?  What was happening in the hearts of those who built this new gallows? Or those who designed it sturdy enough for children to climb its stairs and scamper across its platform? Or those who decided by committee to place it here in the sculpture garden for long term public view and for child’s play? What callouses of the heart made it possible to bring this scaffold into being without questioning its presence here? How often has my own heart been similarly hardened without my awareness and against my intentions? A drum is beating and the scent of burning sage is in the air. As the sacred ceremony begins, I am replaying Sheldon Wolfchild’s words of introduction:

This is a sacred process…. We work as elders first for our children and the future generations. That is our responsibility in a beautiful, good way. When we take this down, then our children will not have to see this image again.

The body’s memory goes back generations, old traumas and the fear they generate are among our inheritances – and our legacies. The construction workers who volunteered for this task of deconstruction mount the stairs, chainsaws in hand; I’m told they are descendants of the 38 Dakota men hanged on its rickety, more hastily built archetype in 1862. Do the hearts of these men today, just six generations later, quake as they climb the scaffold? Will the protection of the ceremony that has just blessed them hold to the end of their task and beyond as they return home? Wolfchild’s words advise us:

This is a sacred process….It takes strength from our heart to realize this truth. That is the prayer. Individually, in your own way, remember this and heal from your heart with the good spirit of life, honesty, respect and dignity.

A man offers a bowl of tobacco to the crowd of witnesses. Tobacco in hand, we each say our own prayers, then return the tobacco to the bowl, allowing the prayers’ collective strength to be gathered. A chainsaw buzzes into action, slices through the first beam atop the platform. Instantaneously, a whooping rises from the crowd and spreads, powerful and resilient. The drum beats. The action fulfills Wolfchild’s words:

This is a sacred process…. This symbol of … negative energy, … justify[ing] ways of taking our land and spiritual belief system, will now end.

The ceremony is over. The real effort just begun. A worker on the platform tosses a 2 x 4 to the ground, where it lands with a jolting crack. We have all been commissioned. The deconstruction of oppression, starting with the scaffolds in our own hearts, is calling. It is truly sacred work, softening the hardened heart and dismantling the platforms of hatred within us and in the world we have built and rebuild together every day. Wolfchild says it simply:

This is a sacred process. Let us all work together in one prayer from the heart.

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