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Dakota artist's piece stands where controversial sculpture sparked protests

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Four years ago, a controversial sculpture in Minneapolis called "Scaffold" sparked protests and was eventually removed. Now a new piece has replaced it. Dakota artist Angela Two Stars hopes the work will educate and heal the community.

Minnesota Public Radio's Euan Kerr reports.

EUAN KERR, BYLINE: The piece, called "Okciyapi," looks like a circular labyrinth. It's about knee height, set around a gurgling dome of water at its center.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER GURGLING)

KERR: Angela Two Stars, a Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, says it represents a droplet sending ripples across a pond or a lake. It honors the work of her late grandfather, Orson Bernard, a noted scholar and Dakota language teacher. Commissioned by the Walker Art Center, the piece features Dakota words and signs with links to the Walker's website, where people can use their phones to listen to Dakota elders telling stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Dakota).

KERR: "Okciyapi," which means help each other in Dakota, sits just a stone's throw from the iconic sculpture "Spoonbridge And Cherry." Two Stars says she hopes people will sit on the piece and children climb on it.

ANGELA TWO STARS: Yeah, be part of it, touch it, engage with it, you know? Whereas oftentimes, artwork's like, don't touch the art - whereas mine is like, yes, please come (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF WINDCHIMES)

KERR: On this particular day, an incoming rainstorm agitated wind chimes. But it's serene compared to May and June 2017, when protesters camped around the edge of the garden. The focus was "Scaffold," a two-story tall wooden structure created by Los Angeles artist Sam Durant as a commentary on capital punishment. It was described as, quote, "a composite of seven gallows used in state-sanctioned hangings in the U.S.," unquote. One of those was the huge scaffolding used in the mass execution of 38 Dakota men in 1862. There in the sculpture garden on what is historically Dakota land, "Scaffold" stood just 80 miles from the site of the hangings. After mediation between the Walker Art Center, the artist and Dakota elders, work crews dismantled and remove "Scaffold" as protesters cheered.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW CUTTING)

KERR: But observers such as Darlene St. Clair say the situation is far from resolved.

DARLENE ST CLAIR: I think it seemed like everything was righted because the sculpture was taken away, when my concern is really the larger messages, the larger lessons may not have been learned.

KERR: St. Clair grew up on the Lower Sioux Reservation in southwestern Minnesota. She now teaches at St. Cloud State, including courses on Native arts and cultural expressions. She says it was bad enough that "Scaffold" reawakened old agonies for Dakota people such as herself.

ST CLAIR: But some of what's retraumatizing for Dakota people is just sort of the erasure of our experience, the fact that actually the general public does not know much of anything about our history in this place and our connection to this place and our love and care for this place.

KERR: St. Clair joined the Indigenous Selection Committee, which helped choose "Okciyapi" for installation. She says the new piece does not erase the memory of "Scaffold," but describes it as being in conversation with a controversial piece and helping with a process of healing.

Mary Ceruti became Walker Art Center executive director in 2019. It was two years after "Scaffold" was removed. But she feels its impact.

MARY CERUTI: "Scaffold" was a little bit of a shock to the system for an institution like the Walker - not a little bit, a big shock to the system - that laid bare something that probably everybody already knew.

KERR: Ceruti says the Walker is examining its history and its processes in the light of what happened. She believes it's to the good.

CERUTI: Sometimes things converge - I don't know if it's the right place and the right time - but at a particular moment in time that can catalyze different kinds of change.

KERR: Ceruti says she's happy "Okciyapi" now stands at the entrance to the sculpture garden, welcoming visitors and inviting them to learn about the Dakota language.

For NPR News, I'm Euan Kerr in Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.