In the early Fall of 2008, I was invited to take part in the “States, Dates and Place” art exhibition at Ancient Traders Gallery with other Native artists in Minneapolis. The theme of the show was the Native response to the State on Minnesota’s recent celebration of its 150 years of statehood.
I was both honored and humbled to be asked, since I was not raised in Minnesota, and my tribe the Oglala Lakota’s recent history is tied to the next state over, South Dakota, where I was raised. It didn’t take me long to find a chapter in this state’s history to portray. The hanging of 38 Dakota Warriors on December 26, 1862 in Mankato Minnesota is a chapter that is one of many tragic ones in Euro-American and Native Peoples relations. It is still painfully felt and remembered in my Dakota brothers’ and sisters’ hearts and minds.
Having a B.S. in American History, with a special focus on the socio-political history of my Oyate the Oglala Lakota and Native American history, I have always known about this tragic story in America; one that is, sadly enough, rarely told or quietly forgotten. When I was invited to be part of this show I knew exactly what I wanted to create and how to portray this story. I remember reading once that executions were presented as a public spectacle, having a circus-like atmosphere. It is true that from the wild-west hangings to the lynchings of black Americans, executions were a cheap form of entertainment. In the case of the 38 hangings, we might consider it the modern-day equivalent of the blockbuster. To put to death all 38 in unison is still mind-boggling, frightening, and is probably a world-record.
I have found that the role of the Episcopal Church in this story is largely left out today for reasons I have not yet explored adequately. As an Episcopal Priest and a fourth-generation Episcopalian, I could not leave the church out. I chose to use my image of the first Bishop of Minnesota, Henry Benjamin Whipple. He is a major figure in church history and was a huge player in Minnesota history. The terrible treatment of the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples by the federal government and settlers culminating in the war, and followed by the executions had affected Whipple and I believe defined the rest of his ministry. I asked the questions: “What was his role?” “Was he a hero or a villain?” Should we consider him culpable in the executions or was he a saint? He had a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln asking him to right the wrongs committed against the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples. Lincoln reviewed the evidence and reduced the number of the condemned from 303 to 38. As a man of the cloth, should Bishop Whipple have lobbied harder with Lincoln to have all 303 sentences commuted? I wonder if he could have tried harder. It may surprise many to learn that of the 38 executed, 37 were baptized (some by the Episcopal Church). And contrary to popular belief, as they walked to the gallows they sang a Christian hymn in the Dakota language and not a “death song.” Might we now consider them to be Christian Martyrs and Saints?
I titled the painting The 38 Tears of Bishop Whipple. The miniature nooses on the painting are real and are adhered to the canvas. The nooses form drops and were highlighted by adding a bit light blue to enhance the notion of tears. Once, I was asked by someone how I felt while I made the nooses. There is one thing I couldn’t imagine and that is what the person or persons were thinking when they tied the 38 nooses for the actual hangings. Were they elated? Were they paid or was it voluntary? Was there a feeling of sweet vengeance? I could only guess, but my own feelings ebbed and flowed with both disgust and horror.
Seven or eight years ago when I lived and served in the Diocese Los Angeles, I began teaching a class on Art and Spirituality and the marketing Native American Indian Art. From these two experiences, coupled with my own art-making, I found that individual minds are opened by art. Art can transform the individual. When Native artists create art that is not necessarily tribally themed, non-Native viewers often voice surprise. In this process some stereotypes fade away. I try to respond authentically to what I feel called to create in art. I hope that whatever the resulting piece is, that it causes the viewer to think. In my painting I leave it to the viewers to interpret for themselves what it says to them. Are the tears Whipple’s own from mourning? Or are they the tears of God raining down upon him?
In 2012 we will be remembering “The 38” on what will be the 150th anniversary of the mass hanging. Today a few of us in the clergy are beginning a process of reconciliation between both Native and non-Native peoples in Minnesota and in the Episcopal Church. As Episcopalians we cannot sit back and do nothing, as it is part of our history that needs to be addressed and understood more clearly today. It is my vision, as both artist and priest, that only good things will emerge as we do this work of reconciliation together.
Image above (and on front-page mastheads): “The 38 Tears Of Bishop Whipple,” by Robert Two Bulls. (The painting is owned by Marilyn Wall of St. Paul, MN.)
Words above by Robert Two Bulls. You can read about The hanging of 38 Dakota Warriors on December 26, 1862 in Mankato Minnesota here.