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Continued: 150 years later, war's wounds still cut deep

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: August 11, 2012 - 6:47 PM

A 150-year-old loop of rope, knotted into a hangman's noose, sits in a climate-controlled case in the underground archives of the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

Some say it should be burned, buried or returned to the hands of the Dakota people.

Others argue it should be displayed, like piles of shoes at Holocaust museums, as a powerful artifact to help people confront the grim story of the U.S.-Dakota War, which erupted in Minnesota in 1862 and ended with the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

The noose, and just what to make of it, is one sign of the historical reckoning looming this year as Minnesotans wrestle with how to mark the 150th anniversary of one its ugliest, yet often overlooked, episodes.

"This will be a very challenging year -- the wounds are still deep," said Republican state Rep. Dean Urdahl, a longtime history teacher whose Grove City home is three miles from where the war broke out. His great-great-grandfather buried some of its first victims. "It was our state's greatest tragedy."

Dozens of commemorative events are planned, from a major exhibit at the Minnesota History Center to programs in classrooms across the state and cellphone tours along the Minnesota River, where the war raged for six weeks. Yet, in the shadow of it all are deep rifts over how to best observe the war's sesquicentennial.

Some Dakota believe artifacts should be returned to them, and that Historic Fort Snelling should be razed or portrayed as a concentration camp used to punish hundreds of their ancestors after the war. Meanwhile, some descendants of the more than 400 settlers and soldiers killed in the conflict complained when early brochures about commemorative cellphone tours of the area hinted that only Dakota elders' voices would be featured.

The concerns reflect debates evident across the country over how to provide a more complete rendition of the past at historic sites, even if that means confronting deeply disturbing events long written out of the historical narrative.

"You can't turn your head from what is not pretty in history and, whatever we do, it's not going to somehow heal things or settle it," said Stephen Elliott, who became the director of the Minnesota Historical Society last May after 28 years at Colonial Williamsburg.

He was among those who decided to give the role of African-Americans and slavery greater prominence at Williamsburg. Five years ago, a similar effort led to reconstruction of a slave cabin at Mount Vernon, the historic home of George Washington.

The U.S.-Dakota War was largely overshadowed by the Civil War raging to the south. But the bloody clash left a profound legacy on the then 4-year-old state of Minnesota.

"I would hope that average, mainstream Minnesotans would take this moment to pause and wake up a little bit to the truth that this country came out of Indian country," said Guy Lopez, a Dakota from Crow Creek, S.D., who now lives in Washington. "What happened 150 years ago wasn't out of the blue and was not without provocation."

The year 1862 started with broken promises and starvation for the Dakota, who had been pushed into a narrow strip of reservation land along the Minnesota River. It exploded when their despair and anger turned into deadly attacks on settlers in August and September. It ended with the December hanging of 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato.

An act of Congress then banished thousands of Dakota from Minnesota. The law, though now unobserved, remains on the books.

"In a situation where it's so contentious, part of what we're trying to address through this observance is how we can be a better institution in terms of our relationship with the Dakota," said Dan Spock, director of the history center museum. But, he added, "we know there will be people for whom we have to be a thing to be against."

For the first time, the history center is using a "truth recovery project" model developed in Northern Ireland, which Spock said features outreach to gather a fuller sense of what happened, "rather than assuming all we have to do is sit down, do some research and cook it up ourselves."

Emotions high in the valley

The Minnesota River valley, where the war unfolded, is dotted with living descendants of settlers whose family trees wind back to 1862. In that area, and among the Dakota, interest in the war is intense. But many Minnesotans remain largely unaware of the tragic story.

"You can get through the Minnesota school system and never hear about the Dakota conflict, and at a national level people are completely clueless," said Jessica Potter, the director of the Blue Earth County Historical Society in Mankato, where the hangings took place after President Abraham Lincoln signed the orders. "Even in this community, we have major community leaders who say: 'Lincoln was involved, really?' "

Blue Earth County's collection includes a wooden beam reputed to be part of the scaffolding from which the hanging ropes dangled. It remains out of view because of questions about its authenticity.

John LaBatte -- a New Ulm descendant of a Dakota warrior, a Dakota who opposed the war and a slain white trader -- will lead battleground tours this summer and is on the state historical society's descendants advisory panel. It surprises him how deeply the war still resonates, noting that it took only decades after World War II for the United States to develop friendly relations with Japan and Germany.

But that war involved a unified America fighting an enemy on foreign soil, noted Sasha Houston Brown, academic adviser for indigenous students at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and a Santee Sioux. The other was fought in occupied territory of the Dakota homeland. "All this goes against the great American myth of the land of the free and the home of the brave. That wasn't the reality, and it makes people uncomfortable," Brown said.

Among the most outspoken Dakota critics of the Minnesota Historical Society's practices is Waziyatawin, who lives in the Upper Sioux Community near Granite Falls and holds a Ph.D. in history. She insists the historical society "is totally callous to the concerns of Dakota people" and thinks Fort Snelling should be torn down or returned because it served as a concentration camp, imprisoning 1,600 starving and diseased Dakota nearby in the winter of 1862-63.

She is angry that the historical society's collection includes the noose, as well as dolls and other items soldiers collected during punitive raids following the war. "All these things need to be in Dakota hands; they have no right to them. It's just another atrocity that they even have these objects taken off the killing fields. ... The idea that they hold indigenous peoples' things and tell us it's for the public's good is outrageous," she said.

Spock insists state historians are trying to be sensitive to Dakota concerns and acknowledges problems in the historical society's past. The remains of Dakota leader Little Crow, in the collection for more than a century, were finally turned over in 1971 under pressure and buried in Flandreau, S.D.

"We're not in the habit of thinking of our activities as being anything other than virtuous, so when somebody says, 'You shouldn't have this, it doesn't belong to you,' it kind of cuts to the core or our values," Spock said.

The history center invited Dakota and settlers' descendants to join separate panels to respond to plans for the anniversary exhibit and events. They showed the groups the noose and other items this month, but refused a Star Tribune request to photograph or see it. They plan not to include it when the 1862 exhibit opens this summer.

"Partly out of sensitivity to the Dakota people, we feel strongly that the noose would tend to overwhelm the whole story and it would just become the noose exhibit," Spock said. "It would detract from what we really want people to understand, which is this whole chain of events that leads to this war, and if there's culpability people can see it."

Darla Gebhard, research librarian at the Brown County Museum in New Ulm, is the great-great-granddaughter of a man who defended New Ulm from Dakota attackers. The noose, she said, should be displayed because "it reminds us of what a horrible end there was to the war and to deny it and not show those pieces is like you're trying to erase the shame of what happened." She recalls the shoes and human hair at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington -- "tell me that wasn't a riveting experience" -- and thinks artifacts are vital to understanding history.

The noose that killed Chaska

After the war, brief trials led to more than 300 Dakota braves being sentenced to die. Lincoln cut the list to 39, writing to state leaders that he was "anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak ... nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty."

A last-minute reprieve by the state left the list at 38. They were hanged the day after Christmas in Mankato. Among them was a man named Chaska, who experts now agree was mistakenly executed. The noose used to hang him is the one in the historical society's archives.

A doctor's wife, Sarah Wakefield, had testified that Chaska protected her and her children when they were taken captive. But Chaska wound up on the gallows anyway. A soldier named J.K. Arnold stole the noose right after the hanging and hid it for seven years, according to his letter in the archives, violating orders to ship all the nooses to Washington.

"It's sitting in there as a trophy and we want it returned along with the other 37 nooses that are somewhere in Washington," said Melvin Lee Houston, 59, of the Santee reservation in Lindy, Neb. His great-great-great-grandfather was among the 38 hanged and his ancestors were among thousands of Dakota forced out of Minnesota.

He hopes all the nooses will be found and given to Dakota elders this year for a Wiping of the Tears ceremony. History center officials resist giving up artifacts, saying it's their job to protect historical evidence, such as the noose, for future generations.

Rep. Urdahl has introduced resolutions to pardon Chaska and to urge Congress to repeal the Dakota Exclusion Act. Even those efforts have aroused controversy.

Waziyatawin and some other Dakota oppose the pardon as an attempt to "assuage white guilt" by clearing a Dakota who helped a white woman instead of the other 37 hanged warriors, who she says were patriotic Minnesotans protecting their homeland from intruders.

"There's so much division in the Dakota community," Brown said. "It's not about blaming or shaming or guilting. Right now, it's about allowing the truth through history to be acknowledged and recognized."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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