History is not just in books. It's also found in tears.

Twenty years ago, I watched a group of Dakota Indians stand by a trench dug in the prairie dirt alongside St. Cornelia's Church on the Lower Sioux Indian Reservation in Redwood County.

There were men I had known for years: Ernest Wabasha, Dave Larsen and the late Amos Owen, a Dakota spiritual leader. They had come to bury 31 Minnesotans -- their relatives -- who died almost 125 years earlier, in a prison after the Dakota War of 1862.

The anonymous remains -- labeled only as male or female, adult or child -- had been placed in cardboard boxes, which were laid above the grave. The bones had been kept for decades by a museum. Once they had been men, women and children. Few, if any, had taken a major part in the war that cost the lives of hundreds of white settlers and was the last desperate act of a people whose culture and land were being taken from them.

But they were all punished. They were all Dakota.

This isn't an ancient story. It is the story of Minnesota's original sin. And as we prepare for next year's 150th anniversary of statehood, we should remember history is a living and often painful thing.

Some Minnesotans already are arguing -- on opinion pages and in letters to the editor -- over the Dakota War. If you thought the Sesquicentennial was going to be a Whiz Bang party celebrating Wheaties and Scotch Tape, you have been eating bad lutefisk. I mean, really bad lutefisk.

Minnesota was baptized in blood, and reminders are scattered across a vast landscape: A monument in a cornfield that marks the spot of a small settlement whose settlers -- all of them -- were surprised and killed on the first day of the war. A marker in a woods where more than 1,000 Indian women and children were imprisoned in a pen. A barren place on the Missouri River where hundreds died of starvation and disease after being "deported" by a new state that exiled the people whose language gave the state its name.

At the time of our Centennial in 1958, the story was reduced to Manifest Destiny skits about brave pioneers and wild Indians. Fifty years on, how do we talk like grown-ups about the war that made Minnesota at the same time we are celebrating the Eelpout Festival?

'A lot to work on'

"Part of the idea is to take a sober look back," says Jane Leonard, executive director of the Minnesota Sesquicentennial. "Minnesota has a lot to celebrate, and a lot to work on," says Leonard, who has met with tribal representatives to discuss ways to make sure the story gets told. "There's a lot to put our arms around. We want to learn from the past as we also look ahead to the future."

For many American Indians, the past is always present.

On the day after Christmas, there will be, as usual, a small gathering in Mankato on the anniversary of the mass execution of 38 Dakota men. They were sentenced to die by an Army tribunal that devoted mere minutes to the convictions of hundreds of Indians who admitted participating in the war. The hanging was ghastly.

At least one warrior was hanged by mistake -- authorities had a difficult time distinguishing between Indian prisoners with similar names. Others were guilty of nothing more than fighting in a war they had seen as a last chance to save their people. When the platform dropped -- hushing a crowd estimated at 10,000 -- 37 men died.

The 38th man's rope broke. He was hanged again.

Doctors wanted the corpses

Most of the bodies were dug up from shallow graves along the Minnesota River by frontier doctors who wanted corpses for anatomical studies. One was taken by Dr. William W. Mayo. The Mayo Clinic owned that skeleton of 1862 until it vanished in the 1960s or 1970s, only to be quietly returned to tribal hands a few years ago. And returned to the earth.

We are still burying the past.

Twenty years ago, as I witnessed the reburial of the 31 unnamed Dakota who died in prison, I shared the common belief that history is old.

Then my eyes were opened.

As Ernest Wabasha and the other men lowered the boxes of bones into the trench and Amos Owen prayed in Dakota, the men began to sob, and to bend in grief. It wasn't an ancient wound that had brought us all to a mass grave.

It was a deep one.

Nick Coleman • ncoleman@startribune.com