In “Local exhibit examines prison system’s roots” (Nov. 23), the Star Tribune described a new exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society on the incarceration of American Indians. A few days later, I spent some time viewing that exhibit. While I found it to be interesting, it was also very troubling as it contained misleading information.
There is one overarching focus in the exhibit, and that is the internment camp at Fort Snelling, where Dakota dependents were held the winter of 1862-1863. This camp was established in the aftermath of Minnesota’s U.S.-Dakota War. As I am very familiar with the U.S.-Dakota War but not with later aspects of incarceration, I will limit my comments to the time of the war.
The war was caused by converging factors. The Dakota’s traditional way of life was disappearing, as both fur-bearing and game animals were becoming scarce. But many Dakota wanted to hold on to that way of life. 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. The annuity payment was late in arriving in 1862 because of the Civil War; Dakota who had not taken up farming were hungry. Indian Agent Thomas Galbraith refused to distribute the food he had in the warehouses until the annuity arrived; traders withheld credit. Finally, four Dakota killed five settlers at Acton on Aug. 17, and the Dakota did not want to turn the four over to white authorities. The war began on Aug. 18.
The exhibit refers to the Fort Snelling internment camp as a concentration camp or an incarceration camp. The name concentration camp conjures up images of Nazi camps. This camp was not even remotely similar to the Nazi camps. It was actually a compassionate response by the white authorities.
After the Dakota had killed many hundreds of whites, some very brutally, and held prisoner many women and children, the whites in Minnesota were totally enraged against them, and many wanted revenge. The white military authorities prevented this by taking the Dakota dependents to the camp at Fort Snelling. They were fed soldiers rations, given medical care and protected from vengeance-seeking whites.
Had the Dakota dependents been left to fend for themselves, huge numbers would have been killed by the whites or starved to death, as they did not have food laid up for the winter. None of us today would want those things to have happened.
The exhibit makes the point that many Dakota died in the camp. It is correct in that, although the number of deaths is open for debate. While many Dakota did die in the camp, many people in the white communities also died. Disease took a toll on both communities, as it did among Civil War soldiers. But the exhibit conveniently chooses to present just one side of the story.
While the camp was certainly not a happy place, and most Dakota would likely have preferred not to be there, it did save their lives. It was a rough time, with few good options available to the authorities. Calling the camp a concentration camp is a flagrant misrepresentation.
While the main part of the war occurred in 1862, killings continued over the following three years. By the end, 580 settlers — men, women and children — and 70 soldiers had been killed. About 100 Dakota warriors were killed. The exhibit states that several hundred settlers and several dozen U.S. soldiers were killed in 1862. This grossly understates the numbers. In fact, the numbers they cite were killed on the first day of the war alone.
I find it interesting that the exhibit is correct that about 100 Dakota warriors killed (it cites 150 at another place in the exhibit), while vastly understating the number of whites killed.
The exhibit states that “After the Dakota War, an Extermination Order resulted in the execution of 38 + 2 Dakota in Mankato.” President Abraham Lincoln, in approving the execution of the 38, did not issue an “Extermination Order,” but an order to execute the 38. Using incorrect and inflammatory language such as “Extermination” is inexcusable. Its use has only one purpose, and that is to make things appear even worse than they were. I think we are better than that in Minnesota.
Also, the exhibit laments the hanging of the 38 Dakota. One has to expect that huge actions, such as the killing of many hundreds of people, will result in a huge reaction, such as the hanging of the 38. To expect it to be otherwise is not realistic.
Facts are the foundation of all that historians do. If the facts are not accurate, the public is misled. The people of Minnesota deserve to be presented the truth about this most significant and tragic event in their state’s history.
Curtis Dahlin lives in Roseville.