A new exhibit that opened this week at the Minnesota History Center examines mass incarceration in America, and it takes a deep look at an overrepresented group in the state's prisons and jails: American Indians.

"States of Incarceration" is a national traveling exhibit created by 500 college students in 17 states, including students at the University of Minnesota. It features historic photos, original artwork and videos and will be in the Twin Cities until Feb. 18 in the History Center's new Irvine Gallery.

A coalition called the Humanities Action Lab launched the project to explore the United States' mass incarceration rate — the highest in the world. More than 2.3 million Americans are confined in prisons, jails and security hospitals, according to the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative.

In Minnesota, where about 23,000 people were incarcerated in 2010, American Indians were 1 percent of the state's population, but made up 8 percent of the incarcerated population.

Kevin Murphy, a University of Minnesota professor of heritage and public history, said that disparity prompted his students to research the history American Indian confinement.

"Our students through this project have done some cutting-edge research," Murphy said.

They started with the camp at Fort Snelling after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, then continued through forced removals, mandatory boarding schools for Indian children, and the high incarceration rates today.

Amber Annis, a historian focusing on community inclusion and engagement at the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS), co-curated the exhibit.

The story of incarceration in Minnesota starts with settlers' desire to take Indian lands, said Annis, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe in South Dakota. That continued through fighting and then confinement and removal.

After the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, women, children and elders were forced to move to Fort Snelling in what MNHS officially calls a concentration camp. There was inadequate food, supplies and clothing, Annis said, and hundreds of people died while confined there.

"A lot of people, particularly Native people, use 'concentration camp' to refer to what happened at Fort Snelling," she said. "After the war, the mission was to remove and exterminate Dakota people."

The exhibit also explores boarding schools through the lens of confinement because children were forced to attend them.

"These were forced assimilation. They were not allowed to speak their language or discuss their beliefs," Annis said.

Minnesota wasn't the only state to extend the research for the exhibit beyond prisons and jails.

Indiana students researched forced commitments at mental institutions, Louisiana students explored the legacy of Jim Crow laws and African-American imprisonment, and Californians researched locking up youth.

"It started out as an effort to understand imprisonment, in particular, but the project has expanded to understand all forms of incarceration," Murphy said.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804