All images are from the Dakota exhibition at the Hillstrom Museum of Art. This piece by Gordon M. Coons is titled "1862 Mankato 2012," 2012, acrylic, 30 x 48 inches.

Minnesota Works on Forgiving But Not Forgetting Its Native History

Konnie LeMay

On December 26, a memorial was dedicated in Mankato, Minnesota’s Reconciliation Park near a white limestone buffalo that marks the spot where 38 Dakota men were hanged the day after Christmas 150 years ago. On a 10-by-4 foot leather-looking scroll will be listed the names of those men next to another scroll with a poem about the hangings and encircled by the phrase “forgive everyone everything.”

“These men fought for the Dakota way of life, trying to hang onto something, to hang onto this land for the future generations of their children and grandchildren,” Vernell Wabasha, wife of hereditary chief Ernest Wabasha, who led the move for the memorial, told the Mankato Free Press.

Dedication of the $110,000 memorial, just after the ending in Mankato that day of the Dakota Wokiksuye Memorial Ride, will wrap up a year of lectures, discussions, exhibits, newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, concerts and commemorations in the state of Minnesota acknowledging the history of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

For many in Minnesota—both Native and non-Native—the events introduced them to a dark history of their state that they had never heard.

“I don’t remember learning much about the war, certainly not the aftermath,” said Minnesota author Diane Wilson, who is Dakota. “The 38 hanged in Mankato, those were the best known facts. … The fact of the removal of the Dakota was something that was so silent, especially that forced march of the 1,700 elders, children and women.”

The history is indeed horrific and complex.

By mid-1862, migrations of white settlers, ignored treaties, corrupt dealings and crop failures brought the Dakota people, restricted to a narrow reservation along the Minnesota River, to starvation and desperation. Then the killing of five white settlers on August 17, 1862, by four young Dakota men ignited a conflict that resulted in the deaths of about 800 settlers and soldiers and perhaps 150 Dakota warriors.

In the aftermath, 400 Dakota men were taken to court and tried in Mankato. President Abraham Lincoln commuted the death sentence for all but 38 of the 303 convicted. The largest mass execution in U.S. history took place on a single massive gallows in public. At the time, Minnesota’s Gov. Alexander Ramsey called for the Dakota to be “exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state,” and the state offered bounties of up to $200 for Dakota scalps. Some 1,700 Dakota people, mostly women, children and elders, were forced on marches, first to Fort Snelling concentration camp and later away to the Dakota Territory and beyond. Hundreds died during and after the marches. This diaspora exiled the Dakota people to areas as far as North and South Dakota, Montana, Kansas, Nebraska and Canada.

The history has largely been ignored within the state, but this anniversary year considerable effort was made, especially in the affected counties, to recount and reflect on that tragic year. The attention opened conversations to help toward healing old horrors, but also stirred hatreds and exposed continuing racism and misunderstanding.

Those involved with the projects, though, see progress.

“To really understand history,” said Wilson, “you really have to see how it affected people, you have to humanize it.”

Wilson’s book Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past, a memoir tracing her family’s history starting from 1862, was chosen as this year’s One Minneapolis, One Read book, which afforded her ample opportunity to join the discussion.

“It gave me a platform to talk to people who don’t know about this history or who are just beginning to read about it and to talk about it.”

Wilson’s family perspective is rare. Her great-great grandmother, Rosalie Mariya Mase, married a French-Canadian man and they had seven children. The Dakota woman had to seek refuge at a fort during the conflict in fear of the Dakota warriors led by Taoyateduta, Chief Little Crow.

“I think it’s helpful to learn it through a story; it gives them a way to work through that history. You can relate to the family. One of the hardest things to do is to build empathy between two communities. You can think, 'Well how would I feel if it was my own family going through that.' … People will come up afterwards and share their own family’s stories and that’s one of the best things that has come out of it. If you can begin to understand with story, it sets you up to go on and deepen the knowledge.”

Wilson hopes the conversation expands. “There’s a tendency to focus just on that six-week war as if that’s the only thing that matters. What led up to it and certainly the decades following with the forced displacement of whole tribal nations, restriction to reservations, outlawing of spiritual practices and the removal of children to boarding schools have had the most lasting impacts. It’s just the beginning of a conversation … to look at the boarding schools is one of the most devastating aspects of native history.”

Mona Smith, Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, has created an online tool launched this year that can continue the conversation. For Smith, the Bdote Memory Map, done with the Minnesota Humanities Center, grew from her discoveries about her culture. Bdote, a Dakota word for “where two waters come together,” here describes the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, culturally and spiritually significant areas for the Dakota—something Smith did not realize growing up about 60 miles away from that area.

“I grew up in Red Wing and understood that this was Dakota homeland, but didn’t understand when I moved to Minneapolis that that was Dakota homeland. It sure seems like most Dakota people who grew up in the urban area were not aware of that either.”

The memory map website features more than just a map with points in English and Dakota. It links to videos of people explaining aspects of Dakota culture and the 1862 events.

“I see the memory map as a place for people to find points of sharing, points that we have in common,” Smith said.

On her first visits to the bdote near Coldwater Springs (Mni Owe Sni), Smith immediately felt her cultural ties to that land and water. “The earth remembers our footprints. The earth is already saying, ‘Wahoo, you’re back.’ I personally believe it is a reciprocal relationship. … The power of the place still is there and it soothes me and calms me and makes me more able to meet some challenges.”

Both Smith and Wilson see the return of Dakota people as among the most significant accomplishments of 2012. The U.S. Removal Acts of 1863 essentially banned Dakota people from Minnesota. That act has never been rescinded, but special attention was paid this year to the people returning.

“The most important to me have been those that have brought Dakota people back home,” Smith said.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton declared August 17 “a Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation in Minnesota,” directed all state flags to be flown half mast “to honor the American soldiers, Dakota people, and settlers who lost their lives in that war.” He repudiated Gov. Ramsey’s 1862 call to exterminate and remove Dakota people from the state. “I ask everyone to remember that dark past; to recognize its continuing harm in the present; and to resolve that we will not let it poison the future,” Gov. Dayton stated.

Also on that day, a group of Dakota people crossed into Minnesota starting from Flandreau, South Dakota. It was the culmination of the two-day Legacy of Survival: Coming Home event and “a very symbolic walk across the border,” said Wilson. “There’s a significant number of Dakota people who don’t know that Minnesota is their homeland.”

Many regional historical societies also have hosted lectures and exhibits, trying to examine history without “taking sides,”—a sometimes controversial concept.

In Mankato, the Blue Earth County Historical Society started with talks on Dakota culture before examining the events of 1862. Jessica Potter, executive director of the historical society, said the effort has been to bring out the human stories.

“You could pick up any history book and get the white settler side of the story, but not get the Dakota side,” she said. “People were hungry for information. They weren’t hungry for taking a side, they were just hungry for knowing more. … There’s been a wonderful light shone on the history.”

People’s stories are more complicated than simple battle statistics and sometimes gruesome, as in the public mass execution. “The idea that you’d have an outing the day after Christmas to watch 38 people executed,” Potter said. “It was a different time, a different culture.”

Community reaction was generally positive at the well-attended events. “It’s been a very enlightening year, not just for myself. There hasn’t been one negative evaluation—other than ‘the speaker should have had a microphone.’”

Positive reactions also came at performances in the area by the Mankato Symphony Orchestra of “To Be Certain of the Dawn,” a multimedia piece commemorating the Jewish Holocaust through music and images mainly of children killed, coupled with a “A Trail of Tears” flute concerto about the removal and forced internment of Native Americans. Dave Larsen, founder of the Mankato pow wow, helped to organize the concerts.

“It was beyond my wildest dreams,” conductor and music director Kenneth Freed said of the response in Mankato. “It was really profound, people were sobbing throughout the entire concert.”

Freed believes residents want to understand more. “We, in Mankato, there is this sense that people grow up in this community and don’t know the profound tragedy, but people know. They’re looking for a way to come together. There’s got to be a way forward, especially for the young people.”

However, some wounds remain raw and understanding comes slower, according to Freed. A few letters in the local newspaper expressed a “get over it” mentality toward the Dakota community and others mentioned settler ancestors killed during the conflict. “People came up to me, saying ‘We had to hide the babies in my family,’” Freed said. “They’re looking for an outlet and just because the loudest voices happen to be writing to the newspaper, it doesn’t mean they’re right. … I just felt like, ‘Why should those voices be dominating?’”

Even at a performance in Morton, Minnesota, where Larsen lives, a young man confronted them, saying of the flute performance, “Why are you pimping out our music to entertain white people?”

These things show a healing still needs to occur and the United States needs to acknowledge and confront its genocidal policies of the past, Freed said. “This is part of the original sin of America. … Why should we dwell on this? So that it does not happen again. By not looking at it, you are saddling the next generation to the yoke.”

That is also the feeling of Elizabeth Baer, a professor of English at Gustavus Adolphus College, who co-taught “Commemorating Controversy: The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.” A student exhibit based on the course is now traveling around the state. The college’s Hillstrom Museum of Art currently is exhibiting works by regional artists in “Hena Uŋkiksuyapi: In Commemoration of the Dakota Mass Execution of 1862.”

The college, which had its 150th anniversary in 2012, hosted a series of speakers connected to the course. Attendance was phenomenal from the public and the students, Baer said. “Seventy to 80 were expected, twice as many showed up.”

Baer, who has written about the Jewish Holocaust, said the series illustrated the need to bring the state’s Dakota and immigrant cultures together.

“There’s really not a venue for this kind of dialogue to happen. When the descendant of the Euro-American settler knew that her great-great grandfather was killed by an ‘Indian’—and that’s how they thought about it—is then confronted by a descendant of Little Crow, they have to think about (the history) differently. … It was a stretch for some people. I’m not saying that we changed minds, necessarily, but we changed some perspective.”

Misunderstanding persists, however, she said, pointing to a Mankato third-grade teacher’s comments in a recent segment of the national radio program “This American Life” that focused on the U.S.-Dakota War.

In the program, the teacher explained how she addresses the events of 1862 with her students. “We just talked about, like a conflict is a disagreement. And we talked how the Dakota Indians didn’t know how to solve their conflicts. And the only way they knew how to solve their disagreements was to fight, which we know we don’t fight when we solve conflicts, we use our words. … But that was their only way that they knew how to solve a conflict, they fought. And so then the white settlers needed to fight back to protect themselves. And we talked about people were killed. …”

Baer found the comments “horrifying. … The generic association that she made that the Dakota didn’t know any other way to settle the dispute—which was so patently untrue—creates serious stereotypes.”

Many of the online offerings, such as the Bdote Memory Map and the Minnesota Historical Society U.S.-Dakota War site offer tools for teachers.

To deal with the past, the United States needs to look to what happened in Germany after World War II, Baer said. “Germany has come to terms with the past, and they have done that by requiring Holocaust education, creating untold memorials, inviting Jews to settle,” Baer said. They call it vergangenheitsbewältigung, which means “coming to terms with the past.”

The United States, too, needs to confront its own past polices of genocide, she said. This year of remembering the U.S-Dakota War may start the process.

“America has not really done that. We have not come to terms with the genocide of American Indians. I saw this past year as the beginning of the vergangenheitsbewältigung.”

Learn more by visiting the Minnesota Historical Society website or watching the Dakota 38 documentary.

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Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
The only reason the "Great so called Emanscupator" Abraham Lincoln commuted the deathes of the other Suoix Indians was because of the compassion the French and English had towards the Native Americans. Lincolns biggest concern was the Europeans would join the side of the Confederacy durring the War. By the way the other Suoix Indians being held were not released for another year and when released loaded on trains and brought to reservations.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
We must LEARN from our mistakes. It takes courage to fight to bring them to light. We need room for ALL of us to heal the hurt and make the JUSTICE whole.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
I was always taught that "Sioux" was a derogatory term for several different tribes of people who lived on the plains of the Midwest.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
I've been speaking about Lincoln for a long time I went to schools and told them the story about how he hung 38 Dakotas after christmas - our education system for our people is inadequate and they need to speak the TRUTH they probably say "what is that" but I'm glad this is coming out