In Minnesota, Listening to Native Perspectives on Memorializing the Dakota War

Sheila Regan for HYPERALLERGIC June 15, 2017 – The outcry over Sam Durant’s sculpture at the Walker Art Center has provoked reflections on past memorials for the US–Dakota War, and how Dakota Nation voices continue to be ignored.

MINNEAPOLIS — In 1990, Cheyenne and Arapaho artist Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds installed a public installation along the Mississippi River on the east side of Downtown Minneapolis called “Building Minnesota,” which recognized the Dakota men who were hung by the United States Government at the end of the US–Dakota War of 1862. Each of the white, metal signs contained one of the names of the men hung in the largest mass execution in the country’s history, known as the Dakota 38 + 2, including the two additional warriors who were hung later under the order of Andrew Johnson. The signs also each contain the phrase “Death by Hanging,” and the name of Abraham Lincoln, who signed the order for the execution, as well as two with Andrew Johnson’s name.

Not everyone loved the piece. Heap of Birds says that he received criticism because of the negative portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. “They thought it was a betrayal,” he said in a recent interview with Hyperallergic.

On the other hand, a remarkable phenomenon happened. After the piece went up, offerings on the artwork began to appear — sweat lodge ties, peace flags, eagle feathers, and other remembrances. “That showed how much people cared, and that they saw it as a religious, or a medicine place,” Heap of Birds said. The installation became more than a piece of art, but rather a place of healing and remembrance.

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