But how can we truly compensate for 1862's mass execution of Indians?
December is a time for reflection and for taking care of unfinished business, so it is fitting, perhaps, that the end of the year in Minnesota always comes with a painful reminder of a deeply troubled past that remains difficult to resolve.
Next Sunday, Dec. 26, will mark the 148th anniversary of America's largest mass execution, the hanging of 38 Dakota Indians in Mankato in a proceeding attended by thousands and done under the color of law but which nonetheless was flawed in how it was carried out and how those marked for death were chosen.
Justice had little to do with the event. Vengeance was what it was all about.
Swindled out of their land, cheated of the paltry payments they were supposed to receive, pushed to the point of starvation, confined to tiny reservations and facing the collapse of their traditional culture, the Dakota exploded in rage and fear and tried to wipe the Minnesota River Valley clear of the expanding white population.
If the original sin of Minnesota was the injustice perpetrated against its original inhabitants, the violence of 1862 and the retribution that followed was the flood that destroyed the old and gave the new state a new start.
But in the view of historian Gary Clayton Anderson, a Moorhead native and an expert on frontier Indian and white cultures, the war and its aftermath were the defining events that made Minnesota.
Born in blood and fire, the state had a rocky start that is still being debated.
Last week, the New York Times reported on a proposal to "pardon" one of the Dakota hanged at Mankato, a man named Chaska, a common name given to first-born sons.
There were several "Chaskas" among the 303 condemned prisoners sentenced to death by military trials -- trials that were brief kangaroo courts and that dispatched death sentences by the score, including to many Indians whose "crimes" amounted to nothing more than fighting in battles with soldiers.
Chaska was among the majority of the prisoners spared from the gallows by President Abraham Lincoln, who was aware, unlike the authorities in Minnesota, that executing 300 Indians would not look good to the world.
Chaska was supposed to be reprieved, but was hanged anyway. He may have been confused with another prisoner with the same name.
But some believe it is very possible Chaska was hanged because he had taken a white woman under his protection and because rumors of a sexual relationship between Chaska and the woman had outraged whites.
The story makes quite a potboiler (I have written extensively about it in the past), but it is important for what it reveals about the lynch-law justice of 1862, and for what it says about our efforts to cope with that history. U.S. Sen. Al Franken, according to the Times, may introduce a bill issuing a posthumous "pardon" to Chaska.
It is a well-intentioned effort, but raises more questions than it answers.
Was Chaska the only Indian not to deserve his fate? Hardly.
Others among the hanged, not to mention among the hundreds of men, women and children who died in prison, in exile, of starvation or, in some cases, who were shot and killed for a state-sponsored "bounty," were equally innocent.
In 1987 -- "The Year of Reconciliation" that didn't reconcile anything -- I spent a year writing about war of 1862 for the Pioneer Press, and the St. Paul newspaper editorialized in favor of a proposal, which had the support of Gov. Rudy Perpich, to extend posthumous pardons to all of the executed.
The idea fizzled after many Indians objected, quite reasonably, on the grounds that pardons imply guilt. The executed and imprisoned were only guilty, they argued, of being Indians.
Anderson, the Oklahoma University historian and biographer of Little Crow, the Dakota leader, says the 1862 prosecutions suffered from the same problems affecting modern-day efforts to prosecute Al-Qaida suspects: Prisoners from a different culture, language, religion and ethnicity, and trouble separating them.
More than one Muslim Chaska has been imprisoned and punished extrajudicially -- and even tortured -- in cases of mistaken identity. In the end, how such prisoners are treated and punished may say more about "us" than it does about "them."
So we are left -- two years from the 150th anniversary of 1862's bloodshed -- wondering what to do with this history.
If pardons aren't the answer, what about apologies to the Dakota tribes and their descendants?
The Legislature has called on Congress to apologize for the government order that exiled the Dakota Sioux from Minnesota after the war -- a neat plan that ignores the state's role in the "banishment or extermination" of the Dakota.
That idea seems to have little chance of passing.
The war and its repercussions defined our state, says Anderson.
Maybe the only fitting way to remember and reflect on the events of 1862 is a moment of silence.
Nick Coleman is at email@example.com.
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