Sometimes, events that occurred long ago are so horrendous that they remain still raw in the present day. They are alive today in the minds of people via stories passed to them from people directly connected with those events. The mass hanging of 38 Native Americans in Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862, is such an event.
It is distressing — and perhaps illuminating — that the Walker Art Center put up its display “Scaffold” without fully understanding this, and with an apparent lack of awareness of fellow Minnesotans and of the landscape upriver, to the west of Minneapolis.
The image of the gallows used in Mankato in December 1862 has a more intensely painful meaning, not only among the Dakota people, but also, I believe, across the landscape where the U.S.-Dakota War took place. That certainly is the case for me.
Both sides of my family are well-connected to the area where the war was fought. One great-grandfather was a Norwegian immigrant who arrived in Yellow Medicine County in 1870, only eight years after the events that led to the gallows. He was part of the immigrant wave that repopulated the area after many of the original settlers had left in 1862.
A grandfather on my father’s side was a Norwegian immigrant who settled about 1900 between Granite Falls and Montevideo near the Minnesota River. My older brother, Stanley, lived most of his life in this area.
Stan was a friendly sort and loved to hunt and fish, as did I. We spent many weekends hunting and fishing throughout the area where the Dakota had lived up to 1862. This often meant asking permission from landowners to hunt their land. For Stan, asking permission often meant “visiting.” Sometimes, we talked about the war, since so many people had family stretching back to that period.
I asked Stan once about a derogatory remark about Native Americans from one of these people. Stan told me the man’s great-grandmother had been taken captive during the 1862 conflict. Later, I heard stories from several of Stan’s Dakota friends, describing their perspective.
Thus, as a young man I learned, first from verbal stories then by reading the accounts, about what led to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, and what came after. I traveled to various events and places, such as the Upper Sioux Agency not far downriver from Granite Falls. I read about the treaty violations that led to the violence. And about the “evidence” that was loosely gathered to condemn those eventually put to death in Mankato, as well as the atrocities committed against settlers.
This led to reading about Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, the Trail of Tears and the many other episodes during the violent subjugation of Native Americans.
But most assuredly, I learned this from personal stories: that the past is sometimes alive in the present. And that knowledge of the landscapes where events occurred is crucially important.
In other words, the image of the 1862 Mankato scaffold has a much more powerful meaning in the present-day Minnesota River Valley, I believe, than it does in Minneapolis.
The Walker Art Center not only failed to talk to Native Americans before erecting “Scaffold” but also failed to understand its multiple meanings. A structure that can simultaneously hang 38 people is much more than a simple scaffold to hang one person; it is a unique symbol of power and violence. It is a statement representing the subjugation of a whole people, as well as those who had no connection to the violence against the settlers living in and near the Minnesota River Valley. It is truly a symbol of what was done across the continent.
And, even now, it is a symbol to those who believe the subjugation was justified. In other words, it is a symbol of a raw wound.
I don’t want to beat up those who made the decisions to put up this structure, and I commend the effort to make amends with the Dakota. But I would like to hear if those involved are reexamining the way they see the world.
Intellectual ideas about “art” in this case have caused a deep injury to real people, and shown again that we seem to be unaware of the original people who lived here before most of us arrived.
Paul Stolen lives in Fosston, Minn.