U.S. Dakota war provides
lasting history lessons for state
Wednesday, September 05, 2012 4:57 AM
The U.S.-Dakota war of 1862 moved to the forefront of our state's consciousness this year, 150 years after the six-week late summer conflict took place in southern Minnesota.
Our news team doesn't have the resources the Star Tribune does to devote up to 18 people, one of them a full-time reporter for several months, toward an excellent series on this important time in our state's history. Still, we have had our share of coverage because there are local ties to the conflict and we also realize how important this historical event is to our state's heritage even if it isn't the upbeat history lessons that typically become popular in the mainstream media.
Although the conflict mainly took place west of here, there were many local events that focused on it, as seen in the pages of our various publications. "The Last Boy in Blue," a play written by Chatfield resident Joe Chase, chronicled the lives of several Fillmore County soldiers during that time. Fillmore County historian John Grabko gave a program on the Battle of Little Big Horn, which, although located in the Western Plains, was part of the war that began in Minnesota and didn't end until the Battle of Wounded Knee.
A family in Greenleafton found ties to the Dakota war and is writing chapters to share with future generations. Columns, such as Journey vs. Destination, outlined some of the related events taking place in the area and explored the ties of Fort Sisseton Historic State Park in northeastern South Dakota to the U.S.-Dakota war.
Although the war's causes began well before 1862, it ended with hundreds dead, the Dakota people exiled from their homeland and the largest mass execution in U.S. history with the hangings of 38 Dakota men in Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862.
Until now, the war has largely been buried in our past - at first, perhaps, because it seemed justified, and, more recently, out of shame of this dark chapter in our state's history.
This year's focus on the conflict is quite different than during the centennial, which was more or less a validation of victory for the settlers with parades and celebrations that provided little reflection.
Today, this episode in our state's history is seen as much more complex. An exhibit by the Minnesota Historical Society includes multiple viewpoints, encouraging visitors to make up their own minds. Descendants of people involved in the war have taken an active role in shaping the exhibit through meetings with staff that were part of a broader initiative called a "truth recovery" project.
It's hard to pinpoint the reason for the new outlook, but our world has changed much, not only since the days of the frontier, but even just in the last decades, so much so that a "truth recovery" project doesn't raise too many eyebrows today.
At the time, settlers in the young state of Minnesota likely genuinely felt that the Dakota were randomly attacking them for no reason except brutality. Today, we know the truth is that tribes were pushed to the breaking point as the frontier was settled. Much of it had to do with treaties that were broken, leading to desperation as they saw starvation, loss of land and the destruction of their culture. That doesn't validate all their actions, but it gives us understanding of how actions played out on the frontier in the 1860s.
State leaders, who likely knew better at the time, were blind to the viewpoint of the native people even after the war was over. Military courts found over 300 guilty, often trying the Dakota in groups and taking as few as five minutes to reach a decision. After Minnesota's Episcopal bishop, Henry Whipple, traveled to Washington to meet with President Lincoln, explaining that Dakota grievances stemmed from greed, corruption and deceit of government agents, traders and other whites, Lincoln granted clemency to most of those sentenced to die.
It's likely the deceit Whipple described to Lincoln also played a part in the reaction of the settlers to the Dakota, as their fears were purposely fanned to further enhance the greed and corruption of some traders and other European descendants who had their own agenda.
One reason we see things differently today is that Native Americans are included, accepted and contribute to our culture. That is the reality despite an act of Congress banishing Dakota people - 1,300 of them in 1862 - from Minnesota is still on the books. That closeness of real people can lead to a change in our perspective as we know them as family, rather than some abstract stereotype.
Fort Snelling may bring back memories of a fun school trip to the historical site for many of us who grew up in the state. However, some American Indian scholars in our state today think the landmark should be torn down or returned because it served as headquarters for a nearby concentration camp, imprisoning 1,600 starving Dakota, many who died of disease, in the winter of 1862-63.
That view may have come as a shock years ago, but today is more understandable given all that we have learned this year about the war. Until this year, we may have been excused for our ignorance. The U.S.-Dakota War was largely ignored or misrepresented, in textbooks so we had little real knowledge to base an opinion.
The new focus, such as the history exhibit, not only provides facts, but also puts faces to this part of our state's heritage. Faces of real people have an impact on our thinking, much more than abstract lessons in history books.
Those lessons can be translated to events today. For example, it's easy for people to get caught up in the paranoia of Islamic terrorists as some vague, foreign threat we don't understand. To many, all Muslims, even Middle Eastern people, are not to be trusted because we just don't know anything about the strangers from that culture.
However, put real, live faces to them and things change. When Rep. Michele Bachman claimed that agents of the Muslim Brotherhood are infiltrating our own government, many thought she was loony, but somewhat harmless. When she put faces to the threat by pointing to an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and indirectly to Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, the repudiation was swift, even from members of her own party, such as John McCain.
Right now, our roles in Iraq and Afghanistan are little understood as the justification is abstract - liberation or an operation to ensure freedom. Once, we learn more about the stories of real people and, perhaps, meet people who live there, our perspective may change.
Although the U.S.-Dakota War was overshadowed by the Civil War raging to the south, the bloody clash left a profound legacy on Minnesota, a state that was just four years old at the time. It's important for us to understand the history of the war, including the circumstances and contexts surrounding it.
As one historian noted, "we need to comprehend the anger and hopelessness of the Dakota families whose children were starving. We need to understand the fear of the settlers when they heard the war whoops. We need to come to grips with the atrocities committed by both sides."
This kind of understanding will help us comprehend where we've been as a state and nation.
More importantly, it will provide lessons to navigate a landscape where the good guys and bad guys aren't always so obvious as we were once led to believe and a world where "truth recovery" is an ongoing reality.