Scott Seekins is no stranger to controversy, but some say he’s gone too far with his latest exhibition, “The New Eden,” opening on May 14 at the Douglas Flanders & Associates gallery. According to the promotional material, Seekins “created this body of work as an alternative to Minnesota’s tepid 2012 150-year remembrance of the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862.”
Douglas Flanders & Associates
Over the weekend, backlash ignited on the show’s Facebook event page, where the header image, drawn in the style of ledger art, features Seekins in his signature white suit, hands raised. He is standing before a Native man on horseback who wears a headdress and is armed with a bow and arrows. A white soldier lies bleeding from the head on the ground, gun in hand.
In the discussion section of the event page, commenters have accused Seekins of cultural appropriation, calling the exhibition “problematic” and “tone-deaf.” Several people have requested via Facebook, email, and phone that the gallery cancel the show.
Dakota LaPlante, a Lakota student majoring in American Indian studies at Augsburg, is one of the most outspoken critics of the exhibition.
“Ledger art was used as a way to have history and to show our history,” he says, citing the show as another example of how Native people are used as props and romanticized for personal gain. “It’s not even about censoring him. He can do that. He can take a form of art that was part of colonialism and use it and that’s fine. Whatever. But he’s going to get crap for it from the Native community, because it is important to us and it is a way for us to tell our history.”
Seekins says there are only a few pieces of ledger art in the exhibition, and that the work is old, dating as far back as 2004. He says he has exhibited smaller collections of it three or four times in the Twin Cities without objections, and that he inquired about doing a group show dealing with the 150th anniversary of the Dakota War in 2012, “but it didn’t come together," he says. "No one wanted to do it.”
Gallery owner Douglas Flanders confirms that Seekins wanted to do a group show. “He felt frustrated that he wasn’t able to put it together and he showed me two of the pieces and I thought, ‘These are really wonderful. Why don’t we do a show?’”
“I know a lot about history and I wanted to do something with conscience,” says Seekins when asked why he chose this dark chapter of Minnesota’s past, which resulted in the hanging of 38 Dakota men, as his subject matter. Religion plays a heavy role in the work, with Seekins occasionally substituting his own likeness for that of a priest. In other scenes, Seekins inserts himself as a witness, such as in one piece that depicts a soldier committing suicide.
“It deals with how that culture joined the military because they had nothing better to do, or were poor — just like now — and were caught in situations and felt they couldn’t handle that, whereas Natives rarely would think about that. They dressed in honor of being in battle.”
Seekins says he’s sympathetic to the plights of Native Americans, and sees correlations between the atrocities of 1862 and current-day polarization and racism. He states that he is against ethnically charged mascots in sports, that ownership of the Black Hills should be returned to Native control, and that historic sites like Fort Snelling “should be demolished or blown up.”
He believes the artwork in “The New Eden” raises awareness about a historical event that most Minnesotans don’t know about — and that those who do know about it would rather sweep it under the rug. “I’ve been reading Minnesota history for a long time, so I know backward and forward what happened in that year here,” he says.
“It’s cool that he’s like, ‘Hey, this thing happened.’ I appreciate that,” LaPlante says. “But it’s also pretty obvious that he didn’t talk to Native people about this time in history, because he’s using the word ‘Sioux.’ ‘Sioux’ is actually a derogatory term that Custer used against Native people. It means ‘lesser than snakes.’ When it’s called ‘The Great Sioux Uprising’ it’s a white, colonial way of speaking about a war that happened between the Dakota people and the U.S. government. It should be called ‘The Dakota War.’ That’s where I can see he didn’t do his fact-checking. If he had called it ‘The Dakota War,’ there would probably be much less of an outcry toward this thing. Maybe people would support it more or be less offended.”
Douglas Flanders & Associates, which opened in 1972, has never canceled an exhibition. “You haven’t seen the show," he says in response to what he calls “sort of hateful and angry” comments on Facebook. "You’ve only seen one sample, which is not typical of the exhibit.”
He hopes to host a panel discussion, so people can “talk with Scott about what his thoughts were, his intentions, and be civil about it.”
LaPlante laments that Native artists don’t receive the appreciation and love they deserve from the community they live in. “Minnesota has a very difficult history with Native people, because of this war and because they came onto this land and they tricked a lot of Native tribes out of their space,” he says. “We’re not trying to censor him. We just want to live and we want to be heard and we want to be seen.”
Though there were vague references to a protest at one point on the Facebook event page, LaPlante says he doesn’t know anything about it. “It’s not even really about protesting. It’s just about getting people to show up at All My Relations Gallery and seeing the contemporary Native art that’s happening there.”
“I feel very sad about all this,” Seekins says of the backlash. “It makes me not want to show anything anymore around here.”
“If Scott wants to do his thing, he should do his thing,” LaPlante says, “but I also think the gallery should consider why they need to do this thing. Is it worth it to have a lot people angry at them?”
IF YOU GO:
"Scott Seekins: The New Eden"
6 p.m. Saturday, May 14
Douglas Flanders & Associates
Douglas Flanders & Associates