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Continued: A deeply reported history on U.S.-Dakota War

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune
  • Last update: August 11, 2012 - 11:05 PM

Much of the world's history is drenched in bloodshed, marked by horrific wars and man's inhumanity, which (in the best of times) eventually give way to grace and civility. Still, it might come as a surprise to many of our readers to learn that Minnesota's history has its own ugly chapter, one that has often been overlooked but that is integral to understanding modern life.

As we approached the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War, we decided to try to explain the significance of this awful time with a historical narrative, as told through the story of Little Crow, a Dakota chief who, at times reluctantly, led the 1862 rebellion. The serial narrative, which unfolds over six days beginning today, may read like a work of historical fiction, but it is a deeply reported piece of journalism, down to the smallest of details.

"Shelves of books have been written since 1862, and it's the most complicated event I've written about in 30 years in journalism," said reporter Curt Brown, who has spent months researching Little Crow and the conflict.

At its most basic, this is the story of how some of the Dakota -- forced onto reservations, cheated out of money that was due them for the sale of their land, and starving -- rose up against the settlers who were remaking the Upper Midwest into a white man's world. Some of the warriors committed terrible atrocities against settlers during the rebellion, before it ended in their defeat.

It is also a story about how settlers, Army leaders and governors exacted retribution by mass hangings, without representation or a real trial. They then succeeded in banishing most of the Dakota from their homeland, the guilty and the innocent, indiscriminately killing men, women and children along the way regardless of their role in the war.

"This is a story of very complex people on all sides," said Kate Parry, the assistant managing editor who directed this project. "There are few simple heroes or villains. Breathtaking atrocities and cruelty were done by the U.S. Army, local leaders, the Dakota and the settlers. What we have tried to do in describing all of that is to provide a glimpse into what motivated average people to turn on each other with such violence -- whether it was the Dakota slaughtering settler families or the settlers exacting horrific revenge on Dakota families."

This is history that was rarely taught in Minnesota schools, and that didn't even start appearing regularly in school history books until the 1990s. Yet, one cannot understand how Minnesota and the Dakota states were settled without understanding what happened here in 1862. A history book written in 1924 sums up its significance.

"In the history of the nation the Sioux Outbreak is only an incident, while the Civil War is a major event. In the history of Minnesota, however, the relative importance of the two is reversed," wrote historian Solon J. Buck.

To tell this story, Brown and photographers David Joles and Jim Gehrz made multiple trips across the state, into South Dakota and up to Canada, to see the places where these events occurred. Brown soaked up the scenes there, the look and feel of the prairie and the land along the Minnesota where the reservation was, so he could describe them firsthand. He and the photographers also had to earn the trust of descendants of settlers and the Dakota, so they would share their stories.

"We made treks to reservations to visit with exiled Dakota in Nebraska and South Dakota," Brown said. "We joined settler descendants on trips near Birch Coulee where their great-great-grandparents were cutting hay when the violence broke out. We retraced Little Crow's footsteps from his childhood near South St. Paul to the pipestone quarries in southwestern Minnesota where he carved his pipes, talking to his descendants, collecting images. We visited graveyards, county historical museums and monuments."

To recreate scenes, Brown mined historical books and diaries for details that would help bring this story to life. Since 1862 was before official weather records existed, we consulted unofficial records that were preserved, along with newspaper accounts. Gehrz worked to get rights from the many different institutions that have photographs of Little Crow, from small county historical societies to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

How could we possibly know what Chief Little Crow was saying to hostages hidden in his loft 150 years ago? Brown drew on a diary kept by a young man among those hostages who meticulously recorded the chief's words. The second part of the series begins with a scene between Little Crow and his mother when he was a small child. A description was handed down through the Dakota oral tradition and eventually was written down. But there was more research to be done to be able to describe scenes based in fact, rather than simply imagining how it might have looked back then.

"For detail on how ice breaks and what the water looks like in a hole in the ice, we consulted with the experts: ice fishermen," said Parry. "To be able to describe the way a rider's hair moves in the same rhythm as the horse's mane, we watched more than a dozen videos of riders on horses at a gallop until we felt confident about adding that detail to a description of Little Crow riding his horse that opens the fourth installment.

"To ensure we didn't push the descriptions further than Curt's research and the historic record would support, we scrutinized each line of the series and whether we had the facts to back it up."

You can go to startribune.com/dakota to interact and learn more about this fascinating period in Minnesota history. If you are descended from the people who experienced the war -- and many Minnesotans are -- you can go to our website and share your family's stories and pictures. You can watch videos of descendants reading the words left by their ancestors in letters and diaries. You'll find lots of other ways to experience this history through reading books or taking a tour of the Minnesota River valley. A version of the entire series in e-book form is also available from our website now.

On Monday, Brown will host a live chat about the series and the war online. Also at the website, you'll find lots of other ways to experience this history through reading books or taking a tour of the Minnesota River Valley. In conjunction with this series, Twin Cities Public Television is broadcasting two documentaries about the war this week.

It has long been said that history belongs to those who write it; therefore it is imperative that history be written with truth and integrity. This can be done only if survivors entrust their stories to us. Brown tells the story of interviewing a group of Dakota descendants on the impoverished Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota, where they were banished 150 years ago.

"A leader snapped a cigarette that had been offered as a sign of respect. For the first time in my career, the interviewee said an ancient prayer, asking his ancestors in their native tongue to help us tell the history with accuracy."

We are deeply grateful to the many Dakota, historians and descendants of settlers who trusted us with their stories.

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Nancy Barnes is editor of the Star Tribune.

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