Nick Coleman: Bellecourt helped change our perception of state history

  • Article by: Nick Coleman
  • Star Tribune
  • October 16, 2007 - 11:23 PM

Until 30 years ago, visitors to the Rotunda of the Minnesota State Capitol could admire a painting of white soldiers vanquishing Sioux Indians at the battle of Killdeer Mountain, out in the western part of what later became North Dakota.

But these Sioux weren't fighting. They were fleeing.

That 1864 incident was more massacre than battle, costing the lives of two soldiers and 150 Indians, including women and children. The soldiers destroyed the Indians' village and possessions, and made the Sioux refugees in their own land. It was the culmination of a punitive military campaign that followed the Dakota Conflict of 1862, in which the eastern Sioux, or Dakota, attempted to drive white settlers from Minnesota. That war led to an official state policy of banishing or killing all Sioux, wherever they were found, even those who knew nothing of the war, such as those at Killdeer Mountain, whose bitter experiences would fuel the wars that stretched from George Armstrong Custer's last ride all the way to Wounded Knee.

It's a story too big for a painting, even one as large as 10 feet wide by 7½ feet high. But those kinds of paintings weren't supposed to represent the complicated history of relations between American Indians and white Americans.

Such paintings were meant to celebrate white triumph.

The 1914 painting, by Norwegian-born artist Carl Boeckmann, was displayed in the House of Representatives until the 1930s, when it was moved to the Rotunda.

Then something happened that changed everything: The "vanquished" started demanding that their story be told, too.

That change was painful, and is still incomplete. But it was necessary, and some of the credit for making it happen goes to Vernon Bellecourt.

Bellecourt -- Indian activist, citizen of the world, politician, provocateur and ambassador for the dispossessed -- was a giant force in helping to end the triumphal approach to the history of this state. Bellecourt died last weekend at 75, and is being buried today on his native White Earth Indian Reservation. During his life he helped change the way we see the world, and the way we see ourselves.

Along with his brother, Clyde, Vernon helped found the American Indian Movement in 1968. Sometime in the 1970s, the Bellecourts objected to celebrating a race war in the Capitol of all Minnesotans. The painting was removed, and the state's consciousness was raised.

Vernon was a catalyst for change. He campaigned endlessly against the use of stereotypical names and emblems, angering sports fans who think Indians are gone and that, if they weren't, they'd be honored by being called the "Fighting Sioux," and worse.

For nine years, this newspaper tried not to use names such as the nickname of the Washington football team. I won't mention it. You know what it is. In a backward move, that policy was relaxed four years ago, when editors decided that they would use the offensive nicknames, but only with "care and judgment."

The Washington nickname has appeared 750 times since.

Are nicknames the most urgent problem Indians face? No. But racism is real, and the nickname problem shows how far we have to go (Cleveland's "Indians" may be headed to the World Series) to understand how we all are affected by racist ideas.

In the long run, however, I think WaBun-Inini, (Man of Dawn, which was Vernon's Ojibwe name), will win.

Until the 1970s, the bones of the Indian leader Little Crow were in a drawer in the Historical Society. Those days are gone. And Vernon Bellecourt helped end them.

Today, if you want to view the painting of the battle of Kildeer Mountain (its official name is "The Eighth Minnesota Infantry In The Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouti"), you need to make your way to the third floor of the state Capitol and go down a long hallway to a conference room behind another conference room.

There, in Room 316, Carl Boeckmann's painting can still be seen -- a picture from a world that no longer exists.

For that, we can give thanks.

Nick Coleman •

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