150 years later, War’s wounds still cut deep…..
- Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
Minnesota is divided on how best to commemorate the U.S.-Dakota War, which left hundreds dead and ended in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
A 150-year-old loop of rope, knotted into a hangman’s noose, sits in a climate-controlled case in the underground archives of the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.
Some say it should be burned, buried or returned to the hands of the Dakota people.
Others argue it should be displayed, like piles of shoes at Holocaust museums, as a powerful artifact to help people confront the grim story of the U.S.-Dakota War, which erupted in Minnesota in 1862 and ended with the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
The noose, and just what to make of it, is one sign of the historical reckoning looming this year as Minnesotans wrestle with how to mark the 150th anniversary of one its ugliest, yet often overlooked, episodes.
“This will be a very challenging year — the wounds are still deep,” said Republican state Rep. Dean Urdahl, a longtime history teacher whose Grove City home is three miles from where the war broke out. His great-great-grandfather buried some of its first victims. “It was our state’s greatest tragedy.”
Dozens of commemorative events are planned, from a major exhibit at the Minnesota History Center to programs in classrooms across the state and cellphone tours along the Minnesota River, where the war raged for six weeks. Yet, in the shadow of it all are deep rifts over how to best observe the war’s sesquicentennial.
Some Dakota believe artifacts should be returned to them, and that Historic Fort Snelling should be razed or portrayed as a concentration camp used to punish hundreds of their ancestors after the war. Meanwhile, some descendants of the more than 400 settlers and soldiers killed in the conflict complained when early brochures about commemorative cellphone tours of the area hinted that only Dakota elders’ voices would be featured.
The concerns reflect debates evident across the country over how to provide a more complete rendition of the past at historic sites, even if that means confronting deeply disturbing events long written out of the historical narrative.
“You can’t turn your head from what is not pretty in history and, whatever we do, it’s not going to somehow heal things or settle it,” said Stephen Elliott, who became the director of the Minnesota Historical Society last May after 28 years at Colonial Williamsburg.
He was among those who decided to give the role of African-Americans and slavery greater prominence at Williamsburg. Five years ago, a similar effort led to reconstruction of a slave cabin at Mount Vernon, the historic home of George Washington.
The U.S.-Dakota War was largely overshadowed by the Civil War raging to the south. But the bloody clash left a profound legacy on the then 4-year-old state of Minnesota.
“I would hope that average, mainstream Minnesotans would take this moment to pause and wake up a little bit to the truth that this country came out of Indian country,” said Guy Lopez, a Dakota from Crow Creek, S.D., who now lives in Washington. “What happened 150 years ago wasn’t out of the blue and was not without provocation.”
The year 1862 started with broken promises and starvation for the Dakota, who had been pushed into a narrow strip of reservation land along the Minnesota River. It exploded when their despair and anger turned into deadly attacks on settlers in August and September. It ended with the December hanging of 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato.
An act of Congress then banished thousands of Dakota from Minnesota. The law, though now unobserved, remains on the books.
“In a situation where it’s so contentious, part of what we’re trying to address through this observance is how we can be a better institution in terms of our relationship with the Dakota,” said Dan Spock, director of the history center museum. But, he added, “we know there will be people for whom we have to be a thing to be against.”
For the first time, the history center is using a “truth recovery project” model developed in Northern Ireland, which Spock said features outreach to gather a fuller sense of what happened, “rather than assuming all we have to do is sit down, do some research and cook it up ourselves.”
Emotions high in the valley
The Minnesota River valley, where the war unfolded, is dotted with living descendants of settlers whose family trees wind back to 1862. In that area, and among the Dakota, interest in the war is intense. But many Minnesotans remain largely unaware of the tragic story.
“You can get through the Minnesota school system and never hear about the Dakota conflict, and at a national level people are completely clueless,” said Jessica Potter, the director of the Blue Earth County Historical Society in Mankato, where the hangings took place after President Abraham Lincoln signed the orders. “Even in this community, we have major community leaders who say: ‘Lincoln was involved, really?’ ”
Blue Earth County’s collection includes a wooden beam reputed to be part of the scaffolding from which the hanging ropes dangled. It remains out of view because of questions about its authenticity.
John LaBatte — a New Ulm descendant of a Dakota warrior, a Dakota who opposed the war and a slain white trader — will lead battleground tours this summer and is on the state historical society’s descendants advisory panel. It surprises him how deeply the war still resonates, noting that it took only decades after World War II for the United States to develop friendly relations with Japan and Germany.
But that war involved a unified America fighting an enemy on foreign soil, noted Sasha Houston Brown, academic adviser for indigenous students at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and a Santee Sioux. The other was fought in occupied territory of the Dakota homeland. “All this goes against the great American myth of the land of the free and the home of the brave. That wasn’t the reality, and it makes people uncomfortable,” Brown said.
Among the most outspoken Dakota critics of the Minnesota Historical Society’s practices is Waziyatawin, who lives in the Upper Sioux Community near Granite Falls and holds a Ph.D. in history. She insists the historical society “is totally callous to the concerns of Dakota people” and thinks Fort Snelling should be torn down or returned because it served as a concentration camp, imprisoning 1,600 starving and diseased Dakota nearby in the winter of 1862-63.
She is angry that the historical society’s collection includes the noose, as well as dolls and other items soldiers collected during punitive raids following the war. “All these things need to be in Dakota hands; they have no right to them. It’s just another atrocity that they even have these objects taken off the killing fields. … The idea that they hold indigenous peoples’ things and tell us it’s for the public’s good is outrageous,” she said.