Editorial: Dakota War story can aid the healing

  • Updated: August 11, 2012 - 6:22 PM

Ignorance has allowed resentment to fester for 150 years.

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The sun sets over Little Crow's grave in First Presbyterian cemetery north of Flandrau, where a dream catcher adorns a 12-foot-high stake behind the tombstone. On a crisp September day in 1971, Little Crow's remains were brought in a copper box to a small cemetery north of Flandrau, S.D., overlooking the Big Sioux River valley, for burial. The tombstone that marks his grave has three dates on it: his birth year, estimated as 1818; the July 3, 1863 day of his death in Hutchinson and, finally, the day he was buried, Sept. 27, 1971.Flandrau, S.D.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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One hundred fifty years ago this week, five Acton Township white settlers were murdered by four Santee Dakota young men. The war that would transform Minnesota had begun.

Before it ended six weeks later, hundreds of settlers and untold numbers of Dakota would be dead. The Dakota bands that took up arms were vanquished, becoming either fugitives or captives. Before 1862 was over, Mankato would be the site of the largest mass hanging in U.S. history.

And before the first anniversary of what would be called the Dakota War, most Dakota people would be banished from Minnesota to what are still some of the most impoverished places in the United States.

That's a simple retelling of a complex story that will be featured on the pages of this newspaper and its website beginning today and for the next five days. Seldom does history claim so much space in a daily news report. But seldom is history as important as the Dakota War is to Minnesota so poorly known and understood.

This sesquicentennial summer, commendable efforts are being made in many quarters to change that. The Star Tribune series joins a notable number of projects and events aimed at deepening Minnesotans' awareness of what happened in the Minnesota River valley 150 years ago. (Here's a  partial list.)

We encourage Minnesotans to take advantage of the learning opportunities that these efforts afford. Only through deeper knowledge of that history can Minnesotans begin to bind up wounds that remain unhealed after 15 decades. Only through honest examination of the experiences of both sides, Dakota and settler, can the lingering anger, resentment and sense of injustice begin to ease. And only if that happens can the descendants of the original residents of southern Minnesota truly be at home in this state once more.

Symbolism will help tell the story in coming days. Particularly moving will be the "Legacy of Survival" encampment and ceremony in Flandreau, S.D., where some Minnesota exiles relocated.

The ceremony begins Thursday and will culminate Friday in a 20-mile walk across the state line to Pipestone's quarry, a sacred place to the Dakota people. The trek is billed as a symbolic "re-entering" of the Dakota homeland.

The marchers will be greeted by task force cochairs DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and GOP state Rep. Dean Urdahl, a descendent of the man who buried the first five victims at Ness Church in Acton.

Another moment of high symbolism will come next Sunday at that church. Descendants of both the Santee and settlers will gather for a joint ceremony of remembrance.

Gov. Mark Dayton plans to issue a statement but not to attend these events, his office said last week. We hope he reconsiders. As governor, Dayton alone can put the stamp of his office on a better vision for Dakota-Minnesota relations than the one that lingers from Gov. Alexander Ramsey's proclamation on Sept. 9, 1862: "The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state."

Dayton can also lend his bully pulpit to a sustained commitment to better teach the story of the war and of Dakota culture in Minnesota schools. Many students familiar with the names Antietam, Shiloh and Harper's Ferry from the other U.S. war in 1862 don't know the significance of Fort Ridgely, Birch Coulee and Wood Lake in their own state. That ought to change.

Today's Minnesotans value human diversity. They understand that to thrive in the 21st century, this state needs to maximize the assets of all of its people. They need to know that they cannot do that until the wounds of the 19th century heal. They need to know the U.S.-Dakota War story.

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Readers, what do you think? To offer an opinion considered for publication as a letter to the editor, please fill out this form. Follow us on Twitter @StribOpinion and Facebook at facebook.com/StribOpinion.

  • THE POWER OF KNOWING


    "People need to know more about this story. Through knowledge comes understanding; through understanding comes healing, and healing is what we need to move into the future as one state."


    -State Rep. DEAN URDAHL, R-Grove City, teacher, author and Dakota War historian

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