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Continued: Lori Sturdevant: In recognition of history, a move to the future

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 7, 2012 - 5:01 PM

Fifty years after the Civil War's brutal 1863 bloodbath at Gettysburg, veterans from both the Union and the Confederacy came in goodly numbers to a battlefield reunion.

Accounts at the time said that boys who had gone off to war had become old men who "reunited in brotherly love and affection." When Pickett's Charge was reenacted, it ended with two lines of old soldiers embracing as fellow countrymen.

This summer marks the 150th anniversary of another bloody conflict. For six weeks in August and September 1862 -- while the rest of the nation's eyes were fixed on fighting in northern Virginia -- Dakota Indian men attacked and killed white settlers and soldiers in the Minnesota River valley before being subdued and captured themselves.

The 1862 death toll in what came to be called the Dakota War was never certain, but it ran well past 500, including 38 Dakota men who were hanged on Dec. 26, 1862, in Mankato. Many more Dakota people died in ensuing years of forced marches, fugitive hunts, imprisonment and exile in South Dakota and Nebraska.

In the 150 years since, there's been little public show of "brotherly love and affection" between the triumphant U.S. forces and the vanquished Dakota people. Old enemies never came to Fort Ridgely or Birch Coulee to put a coda of public embrace on the violent episodes there.

No state government site celebrates the life of Little Crow, the Dakota military leader, the way Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is venerated at Arlington National Cemetery. (What happened to Little Crow's body speaks volumes about the attitudes of the Dakota War victors. It was mutilated the day after he was shot in 1863; his scalp, skull and bones were exhibited at the Capitol until 1915; and the remains weren't returned to his family until 1971.)

And while the Civil War battles of 1862 are now staples of schoolkids' lessons, the Dakota War's dark shadow on Minnesota history has been comparatively ignored.

But this sesquicentennial year could change all that. A potentially potent catalyst for a positive turn in Minnesota-Dakota relations went on display on June 30 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. It's an exhibit titled, simply, "The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862."

It speaks well of exhibit developer Kate Roberts and her team at the Minnesota Historical Society that they deemed the sesquicentennial too important to ignore, no matter how much at odds the two sides remain.

And no matter their own institution's less-than-impartial history. Among its founders were two Minnesota governors who were key players in the 1862 drama.

Henry Sibley had a leading hand in setting 1851 treaty terms that left the Dakota at a disadvantage -- though his history also includes having a daughter with a Dakota wife. In 1862, he led the militia forces that subdued the rebellion and punished the Dakota people. Alexander Ramsey, in office in 1862, famously ordered that all Dakota people "must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of Minnesota" -- then very nearly made that stick.

"Our job wasn't to defend the actions of Ramsey or Sibley," Roberts said. "It's our job to provide a forum for multiple perspectives, to educate people, to give them as much information as we can."

It speaks better still of Roberts & Co. that they knew they needed guidance from descendents, of both the Dakota and the settlers who were killed and injured, to do this exhibit right.

"This is by far the most contested history I've waded into," Roberts said. "Every fact is in dispute -- every fact."

Her team hosted three roundtables with Dakota people between September and April. They dispatched oral historians to Nebraska, South Dakota and Canada to interview descendents of the banished Dakota. They established a settlers' descendents advisory group, and worked with an existing network, Family and Friends of Dakota Uprising Victims.

They heeded the advice they heard. For example: When Dakota people objected to the proposed exhibit title, "A Minnesota Tragedy," Roberts changed it. ("This wasn't just a Minnesota story, and we're not tragic. We're still here, even though we are a displaced people. We survived," explained Franky Jackson, a cultural resource management consultant and member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota band.)

When settlers' descendents were unhappy with the term "concentration camp" applied to the 1862-63 winter detention of Dakota people at Fort Snelling, Roberts dropped it. ("This wasn't Auschwitz. It was a place to protect and feed the Dakota people who might otherwise have starved or been killed -- people were so angry," said Jan Klein, whose great-great-grandfather was killed and his body dismembered near Birch Coulee.)

Roberts did not orchestrate joint meetings of Dakota and settlers' representatives as part of that process. But as the exhibit came together to the satisfaction of both sides, she began to hear the question, "When can we all meet?"

"I think folks are ready," Roberts said. "The shared emotion here is grief. It's the sense that this shouldn't have happened. Nobody came out of it well."

In addition to the St. Paul exhibit, an impressive number of sesquicentennial events afford ample opportunity for would-be reconcilers to plot strategy. A partial list is at www.usdakotawar.org.

The most moving event could be a planned reunion of Minnesota's Dakota exiles in Flandreau, S.D., culminated by a march from Flandreau to the Pipestone quarry on Aug. 17. It could be a fine occasion for a display of "brotherly love and affection" among people whose ancestors were enemies.

State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, will be there. Urdahl is a historian who has written extensively about the Dakota War. His great-great-grandfather helped bury its first settler victims at Acton and supervised construction of a stockade to fend off an attack at Forest City. Yet Urdahl sponsored legislation in 2009 asking Congress to repeal the Indian Removal Act of 1863 that authorized the Dakota expulsion.

He shouldn't stand alone in Pipestone to welcome the returning exiles. Other settlers' great-grandchildren and other state leaders -- including the fellow who holds the office Sibley and Ramsey once held -- should join him. And other Minnesotans who want a new chapter in Minnesota-Dakota relations should cheer them on.

Lori Sturdevant, a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist, is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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