I want to take a moment to draw attention to Minnesota journalist and Star Tribune reporter Curt Brown’s recent excellent six-part piece on the 1862 war between the Dakota nation and the nascent Minnesota government (which, by extension, became a war with the federal government when US troops were dispatched to stamp out the fighting). This is one of those dimly lit recesses of American history, at least to most white / non-Indian folks, and Brown’s writing, which tracks the war’s progress through the footsteps of semi-reluctant Dakota leader Little Crow, shines a powerful light on the scene. You can find the first piece in the series here.
In my junior high school, we had two extensive history units: one on Native American history, and one on the Civil War. The Civil War project was legendary in my school system; the class was team-taught by two men with extensive knowledge of the war, and involved writing a four-chapter “book” on the war, based on class lectures and research materials. This was 1993, so… my only other resources were the 1960s era Worldbook Encyclopedia set that we kept in the basement. Nevertheless, I loved this project — writing a history book, are you kidding me? Of course I loved it! I vividly recall one of the instructors bringing in his extensive collection of period-specific replica firearms, all of which were fully functional. I can’t conceive of that taking place today, but it was a complete non-issue for most students and parents at the time.
The unit on Native American history came a year earlier, and was, sadly, much less involved. Even so, it was a good step in the right direction, I feel. I remember our books were brand new, part of an effort on the state’s part to peel back the layers of colonial suppression and add dimensionality to white student’s understandings of Indian history. We did, in fact, read about Little Crow and the 1862 war, but being that we constituted a young audience, the details of the fighting were largely glossed over. I do recall learning that Little Crow was shot by a farmer in 1863; the gruesome and shame-inducing details of the way his remains were treated, which Brown covers in the final installment, were certainly not taught to us. We did, however, learn plenty about the even more shameful mass hanging of 38 Indians on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, a city not far from where I grew up. Originally, 303 Indians were sentenced to hang, although Abraham Lincoln, concerned with the bad press this would receive in Europe, where he was hoping to find allies for the North, culled the list to the final 38. One may be tempted to see mercy at work in this action; after all, Lincoln was the “Great Emancipator.” However, this does not change the fact that he put his stamp of approval on many plans to break treaties and forcibly remove Indians from their land throughout the west. To put it bluntly, when forced to choose between the war between the states and ensuring peaceful expansion across the western territories, Lincoln put his energies into the former. It is difficult to judge him for this, perhaps, but the fact remains that this decision led to decades of violent repression of America’s native peoples.
My first encounters with the history of the Dakota during the 1800s came well over a decade before I would first learn about Postcolonial Theory, but even so, my perspective of Minnesota politics and history was forever altered. The schools I attended, the streets of my home town, even the names of nearby cities, now stood out to me as drawing their names from men who had either helped craft the policies and implicit trading practices that forced starvation on the Dakota, creating a powderkeg situation (which, of course, worked directly in the favor of the white political leaders). It is particularly encouraging to see that many Minnesotans are pushing the boundaries of their own understanding of the situation, and that there is an impressive effort to educate the public about this terrible chapter in the state’s history; the Star Tribune has published links to a noteworthy collection of resources related to the 1862 conflict, including the republication of interviews with Little Crow and another Dakota leader, Big Eagle. Minnesota History.net has links to further events and comments surrounding the anniversary of the war as well.