By Tanner Kent
The Free Press
ST PETER — As Robert Two Bulls began handmaking 38 nooses, he started to wonder.
“Being a student of history,” said the Oglala Lakota artist who is also an ordained Episcopal minister. “I tried to think of who would’ve fashioned the nooses back then.”
What were they thinking while tying the nooses for 38 Dakota necks? What were they feeling? Were they paid for the grisly work, or did they volunteer? Were they recalcitrant and sorrowful? Or, did they burn with hot vengeance after the battles between white settlers and Dakota natives that served as a precursor to the largest mass execution in United States history?
“Who knows?” said Two Bulls, whose painting of Bishop Henry Whipple catching 38 noose-encased raindrops from the sky is one of the most striking images in the exhibit that opens Monday at Gustavus Adolphus College’s Hillstrom Museum of Art.
“It’s a morbid thing to think about. But that’s what the nooses were designed to do -- snap the necks of the executed.”
And so it happened.
On Dec. 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato for their supposed roles in the U.S.-Dakota War. Now, as a culminating event in Gustavus’ series of commemorative events, Hillstrom is hosting “Hena Unkiksuyapi,” a collection of works that explore the impact of that event 150 years after its occurrence.
The exhibit remains on display through Feb. 8 -- save the stretch between Thursday and Jan. 6 when Gustavus is closed for winter break. The exhibit will also be held in conjunction with a slate of related events, including a roundtable discussion on Jan. 20 and a Jan. 27 lecture from Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.
“Hena unkiksuyapi means ‘we remember those’ -- those events and stories,” wrote Gwen Westerman, co-curator of the exhibit and an English instructor at Minnesota State University who is a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota and a frequently sought commentator on the events of 1862.
In an eloquent essay she penned for the exhibit, she continues:
“We share this date in our history, yet the legacy of its impact on us is as diverse, as present, and sometimes as absent as the stars we are able to see in the sky. In the bright light of day, we see only one star, our sun, but that does not mean the other stars are gone. When the sun sets, we can see them again. Even at night, though the bright lights of a city can obscure those stars in the sky, it does not mean they are gone. At a distance from those cities, even just a few miles, our sky is filled again with stars. It is our point of reference that obscures or clears our vision.”
Westerman further contributed a pair of quilts and an installation for the exhibit.
One of her quilts, “Mitakuye Owas (All My Relations),” features a vivid, multi-colored starburst surrounded by glass beads and Swarovski crystals that represent constellations. Her installation is comprised of four fabric panels -- arranged in a square to recall the configuration of the Mankato gallows -- suspended from the ceiling.
“She’s not only an artist, but a scholar,” said Don Myers, Hillstrom director, adding that Westerman’s advice and insight were invaluable during the six-year preparation for the exhibit. “I’m so pleased she was willing to be involved.”
Janice Albro is pleased, too.
The Bartlesville, Okla., painter and sculptor already has contributed one piece of art to this year’s commemorative dialogue. Her large-scale sculpture “Giving Thanks,” which depicts a warrior praying to the Creator with his pipe, was included in Mankato’s CityArt Walking Sculpture Tour.
Though she had traveled through Mankato before, she had never stayed for any length of time until she arrived this year for the installation of her sculpture. She said the experience prompted a spring of emotion that bubbled once again when she was asked to contribute pieces to the Hillstrom exhibit.
Her contributions include a dignified representation of the legendary Dakota chief Little Crow and another sculpture that shows a Dakota warrior wielding a symbolic flag.
“To think I have something there that represents our people is powerful,” said Albro, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota. “To say that I was pleased doesn’t come close to the feeling I had when I was asked to exhibit my work at the college.”
Two Bulls said he had a similar reaction when asked to contribute work for the exhibit. As a historian, he said he remains concerned that the events of 1862 have been tragically under-told and under-represented in American history. He said he hopes his work and the Hillstrom exhibit can lead people to a more complete understanding of what took place.
“I hope the painting really draws some of those folks in,” Two Bulls said. “It’s one of the many sad chapters of our history.”