Reaching back to touch the past

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 16, 2012 - 6:32 PM

A century and a half after the U.S.-Dakota War, Harry Lamson, an 82-year-old retired state trooper, sits in a cottage on the shores of Lake Superior, cradling a double-barreled, muzzle-loading gun with a cracked stock.

An engraved silver tag on the stock reads: "Chief Little Crow, leader of the Soo Massacre, killed near Hutchinson, Minn., by Nathan Lamson, Brown's Valley."

The gun belongs to Janet Jensen Presley, 79, a retired second-grade teacher. She grew up in Browns Valley in the Minnesota River valley, where her father acquired the gun in the 1920s.

Lamson lives in Grand Marais, nearly 350 miles northeast of the poplar tree where his great-grandfather, Nathan Lamson, took the first shot at Little Crow in 1863. He is visiting Presley's cabin to ponder whether this gun could be the one his great-grandfather used that day. Or, is it a gun that belonged to Little Crow?

It's one of countless relics steeped in mystery and meaning, connecting Minnesotans today with the horrors of 1862. They are preserved in county museums, Minnesota Historical Society collections and in the hands of private collectors and descendants.

When Harry Lamson was a kid in the 1940s, his father would get invited to Hutchinson to serve as grand marshal as the town celebrated Little Crow's death over the July 4 weekend.

"He never accepted the invitation, but at the time Little Crow was still the bad guy and my great-grandfather was a hero who shot the renegade outlaw," Harry says. "Now, of course, all the thinking in today's world has changed and my ancestor is the bad guy who got the $500 and Little Crow is the hero."

Powerful artifacts

Some 500 miles southwest of where Lamson examines the old rifle, just over the South Dakota border, Wesley Hansen pulls a shoebox out of a closet in his house along Stray Horse Creek north of Flandreau.

Before opening it, he explains how the Dakota rested their horses and camped at the creek near his back door on their annual buffalo hunts on the plains, back when Little Crow, his great-great-grandfather, was their leader.

Then Hansen lifts the lid and reveals a worn pair of antelope-hide moccasins with a hole in the toe. Faded beads of blue and red, sewn in a geometric pattern, still sparkle.

Little Crow's son, Wowinape, had hidden the old moccasins in a cave after his father's death, according to oral history passed down in the family. In the late 1860s, Wowinape recovered the moccasins and some other items. They were passed down to a nephew, then to another nephew, who gave them to Hansen.

"Whether these were moccasins Little Crow was wearing when he died," Hansen says, "well, that's hard to say."

Near Acton Township, Donna Whitcomb still has the old bullet she found in a safe deposit box after her father's death. She is part of a six-generation family still farming the land where the Acton shooting ignited the war. The bullet appears to be one dug out of the white oak that farmers and some young Dakota men used for target practice right before the settlers were shot and killed, the confrontation that spurred the Dakota to full-scale war.

These three tangible pieces of the past let us literally touch history, making it vivid and real. They also become mired in controversy over how to preserve and remember the past. An object as simple as a doll once carried by a Dakota child becomes vastly more complex when we learn it was retrieved off a battlefield by a U.S. Army officer in the era of punitive raids against the Dakota.

A request to see half a dozen items connected to Little Crow in the Minnesota Historical Society collections for this series -- a pipe, a headband, a bow, moccasins -- was rejected because the items were deemed too culturally sensitive by an Indian advisory panel. Fifteen decades after the war, the significance of these powerful objects has only grown.

This weekend, events marking the anniversary are largely separate commemorations by Dakota and settler descendants. There is a gulf between these intensely interested descendants and the many people who have never grappled with the grisly war and what it means about Minnesota.

At a lecture series on the war at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter earlier this year, a student rose to say she grew up in Minnesota, but never learned about the mass hangings, broken treaties and the slaughter of settlers until that afternoon. Relatively little was taught until 1990, when 17 pages on the war appeared in a new edition of Minnesota's sixth-grade "Northern Lights" history textbook.

Dakota leaders have called for revising the curriculum to more fully explain the plight of the Dakota and the scurrilous conduct of traders and government agents that precipitated the war.

They have also asked Gov. Mark Dayton to repudiate Gov. Alexander Ramsey's remarks that the Dakota should be exterminated, something the governor's spokesperson said he is considering.

Bones beneath our feet

In the chill of a February morning, Mary McConnell, an attorney who lives near the St. Croix River, joined a group of settler descendants who came from as far away as Arizona to share stories and research.

They met only recently online and were headed out to the land their ancestors farmed near Birch Coulee in 1862.

Standing on those farm fields 150 years later, some wept, wondering if their ancestors' bones, buried where they fell, might be in the dirt beneath their feet.

"You hear the military stories and how the government corruption impacted the Dakota, but we don't often hear the settlers' voices anymore," said McConnell, whose Scottish immigrant ancestors wound up in the midst of the violence. "These poor people were noncombatants who just wanted to improve their lot in life and were caught unarmed and by surprise."

Some were out cutting hay when the Dakota warriors came. Some hid behind doors and beneath beds of straw tick. Some were killed. Others were taken hostage or spared. Their descendants want to ensure they are not forgotten. They plan to unveil a new memorial sign to their ancestors on Labor Day weekend near Morton in Renville County.

Still banished by law

Melvin Lee Houston pecks away at his computer keyboard in a former schoolhouse near Santee, Neb., its floor weathered and a wood-burning stove its only source of heat.

The Santee Sioux reservation is just one of the places the exiled Dakota landed after they were shipped by steamboat and boxcar after the war. Many still live there.

The federal law banishing the Dakota from Minnesota remains on the books, despite recent calls by the Legislature for Congress to revoke it. The issue is tangled in lawsuits that could redefine who belongs to Dakota tribes.

In the years after the war, the Dakota began filtering back despite the law, in addition to a few hundred allowed to stay because they converted to Christianity or cooperated with the Army in identifying Dakota who fought in the war.

Today, only about 5,000 Dakota live in Minnesota, according to the 2010 U.S. census. On the other hand, the Ojibwe up north, whose ancestors stayed out of the battles, number 33,000. Houston is compiling the number of exiled Dakota living in Nebraska, the Dakotas and in Canada -- a figure that will easily top 50,000.

"We don't even know each other, yet we're relatives from our days back in Minnesota," Houston says. "We shouldn't be out here. Yet we survived."

Despite considerable health problems, Houston made several trips to St. Paul earlier this year to be among dozens of Dakota exiles meeting with the Minnesota Historical Society, suggesting how to accurately commemorate this somber sesquicentennial. A separate committee of settlers' descendants did the same.

The Dakota in Minnesota include many well-to-do Mdewakanton in Shakopee, and three other recognized bands from the Upper Sioux, Lower Sioux and Turtle Island communities. All have benefitted from casinos, especially Mystic Lake. The Shakopee Mdewakanton have provided more than $200 million in grants and donations to tribes from Wisconsin to Montana.

The wealth of that band is a sharp contrast to the first place the exiles were shipped -- windswept Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota. Tucked along hills hugging the wide Missouri, Crow Creek is as troubled today as it is beautiful. Life expectancy rates there hover in the mid-40s -- some of the worst in the world. Suicides rates among young teenagers are four times higher than other minority groups and unemployment seldom dips below 50 percent.

"We're a broken people, barely hanging on," Hansen says from his perch on Stray Horse Creek.

A language reborn

Just before noon in a classroom on the Flandreau Santee Sioux Reservation in southeast South Dakota, a dozen adults write in journals at the end of their Dakota language class.

With only a handful of native speakers left, a teacher commutes 170 miles from the Santee reservation in Nebraska to help breathe life into their ancient sing-song language. This is another place the Dakota exiles wound up.

Despite the harsh life of many of the exiled Dakota, there is an undercurrent of resiliency among descendants of Little Crow and his followers. Two of the pupils are Francis Wakeman and Billy Gilbert, middle-age cousins and direct descendants of Little Crow.

Until recently, schools didn't teach about their ancestor or the language Little Crow spoke so powerfully. Now, Wakeman is determined to master the Dakota language, and teach it to his grandchildren. It's a growing sentiment among the Dakota this year.

"A long time ago around here, we were made to feel ashamed of who we were," said Wakeman, 61, who manages reservation facilities.

"I need to have this language. When it's my turn to go to the spirit world, I want to be able to speak to my relatives in our own language."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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