Historical events will always be open to differing interpretations. Even when the facts are not in dispute, establishing historical truth can be a matter of perspective.
In his Star Tribune counterpoint (“U.S.-Dakota exhibit has some things wrong,” Dec. 3), Curtis Dahlin takes exception to a traveling museum exhibit’s characterization of the Fort Snelling prison camp during the winter of 1862-1863 as a concentration camp. He further argues that the exhibit, currently at the Minnesota History Center, misrepresents the policy of rounding up Dakota people and placing them under the direct supervision of the U.S. Army in the aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
Dahlin goes so far as to say that the camp “was actually a compassionate response by the white authorities.”
Where is the compassion in holding 1,500 Dakota people — 90 percent of whom were women and children — against their will, uncertain of their fate and mourning the loss of many who died on their way to camp or during their time there because of the deplorable conditions?
Dahlin downplays the long record of the federal government’s coercion of the Dakota people — including the tens of thousands of Native American children forced to attend assimilation boarding schools in the late 19th century — and its failure to fulfill vitally important treaty obligations. He describes the prewar situation: “The Dakota were not able to live on the proceeds from their treaty payments, and they believed the U.S. government was not fully honoring those treaties.”
It is historical fact — not merely a belief held then by our ancestors — that Congress failed to appropriate any money to the Dakota tribes for two years after the signing of the 1858 treaties ceding their lands in southern Minnesota. Rampant corruption deprived the tribes of getting their full, rightful payments when funds were finally made available; and later there were enormous delays in the federal government’s making its required annuity payments and food distributions.
Even when distributions were made, at times the food was rancid and not fit for human consumption. Dakota children were literally starving to death.
Dahlin objects to the term “concentration camp” because it “conjures up images of Nazi camps.” Yet scholars use this term regularly to describe other camps employed by the U.S. government throughout the 19th century in the forcible removal of Native Americans from their lands. The British government popularized that very term in describing their own notorious network of camps during the Boer War of 1899-1902. Dahlin conflates “concentration camp” and “extermination camp,” in what appears to be an effort to minimize the tragedy that befell our ancestors.
The eminent early Minnesota historian William Watts Folwell summarized the thinking of those Dakota who were interned at the Fort Snelling concentration camp. They “were tantalized with rumors … that the thirty-eight men hanged at Mankato were but the first installment of wholesale executions. … Their guards and keepers, who were equally ignorant of the undeclared policy of the government, could give them no intimation of their probable fate.”
During that bitter winter 156 years ago, the Dakota suffered a horrific experience, living in constant fear at the mercy of a government that had not previously shown good faith. Most of them would be banished altogether from Minnesota, their homeland, the following spring, many dying in the process.
A century and a half later, we all live in a very different Minnesota, with increased respect for its indigenous peoples. Minnesota’s Dakota and Ojibwe tribes are sovereign governments, working hard toward self-sufficiency. They are building their communities, collaborating with their neighbors and demonstrating their cultural, social and economic contributions to our state. But work remains to be done: Reconciliation and understanding are imperfect, and Native Minnesotans are still too often invisible to the broader society.
The U.S.-Dakota War, its causes and long aftermath are still seared into our tribes’ collective memory. That tragic history, if accurately understood, holds lessons too for all of us Minnesotans as we work together to transcend misconceptions and achieve the Minnesota we all want for ourselves and future generations.
Charles R. Vig is chairman, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. Shelley Buck is president, Prairie Island Indian Community. Brian Pendleton is president, Lower Sioux Community.