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Beyond 1862: Another year of remembering the Dakota-U.S. War

In 2013, we’ll have opportunities to learn more about how the Dakota shaped Minnesota, how their lives unfolded outside of the state, and what these lands mean to them.

In 2012, Minnesota marked the 150th anniversary of the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862, a six-week series of battles between Dakota warriors and white settlers that left more than 600 people dead across the state. We remembered, with ceremonies across the state, an excellent exhibit at the History Center, and a stack of new books that examine that fateful year and how it shaped Minnesota history.

What happened here affected native people across the country, and shaped the course of westward expansion. The echoes of the War of 1862 carried far beyond our state. The Dakota come up in the new film “Lincoln.” Minnesota writer and historian Gwen Westerman recently appeared on “This American Life,” as did Mary Westerman, author of the definitive Minnesota state history guide, “North Country: Making Minnesota.” After 150 years, it seems we are finally ready to talk about what it took to settle this country, and who was already here.

We are not through remembering, though. On Dec. 26, the City of Minneapolis declared Dec. 26, 2012, through Dec. 26, 2013, “The Year of the Dakota: Remembering, Honoring, Truth-Telling.” [PDF]

Native people in attendance of the city ceremony were emotional. The resolution included the terms genocide, concentration camps, bounties, and forced marches — the first time any document at any level of government details the realities of the genocide of native people in this country.

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The 26th marked the end of the war and the beginning of a redefined order for the Dakota people. On Dec. 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men and boys were publicly hanged in Mankato; they were accused of participating in attacks on white settlers. Some of them actually did. A few weeks earlier, the forcible exile of the Dakota people began when they were driven from the state in a grim 150-mile march that few of the mostly women, children and seniors were strong enough to undertake. Years of the starvation, disease and mistreatment that led up to the attacks had taken a harsh toll on the population, and many died on that march. Last month, a group of descendants and other individuals commemorated the march by walking from the Lower Sioux Agency outside of Morton, Minn., to Fort Snelling — the original path in reverse.

The Dakota have been welcomed back and their stories are now being told. In 2013, we’ll have numerous opportunities to learn more about how the Dakota shaped Minnesota, how their lives unfolded outside of the state, and what these lands mean to them.

A new ebook, “Henry Sibley and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862,” by Rhoda R. Gilman, puts the focus on Minnesota’s first state governor. Sibley, a military leader with extensive relationships in the Dakota community, was called into action in the wake of the massacres, and oversaw the capture, trials and hangings of the accused 38 Dakota. Things were complicated for Sibley: He had at least one child with a Dakota mother. The e-book excerpts from Gilman’s 2004 biography, “Henry Hastings Sibley: Divided Heart.”

“Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota,” by Gwen Westerman and Bruce White, maps Minnesota from a Dakota perspective. The writers explain the origins of the Dakota names that dot our map, and tell stories about the sacred places, like the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, Coldwater Spring and Mounds Park. Many of these places are lost under pavement, but many remain. A huge red granite stone, now on the lawn of a church in Newport, has been an important stopping place for Dakota over hundreds of years. The site now called Pilot Knob served as a final resting place for generations of Dakota.

Many Dakota monuments are marked only by the course of water or the curve of land. It takes someone with a long memory for stories to bring history to life. In 2013, the storytellers get their chance to be heard.


  • Jan. 12, 2 p.m.  The History Theatre will stage “38: The Dakota-U.S. War.”  
  • Jan. 13, 10 a.m. The James J. Hill House, St. Paul. “Ded Unkunpi We Are Here,” an exhibit of art by contemporary Dakota artists on the topic of the Dakota-U.S. War.
  • Jan. 19, 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Minnesota History Center. Dr. David Nichols, author of “Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics,” will lead the History Forum event, “War Within War: Lincoln and the US-Dakota War of 1862.
  • Jan. 29, 7 p.m. Minnesota History Center. History Lounge event: The 1862 Dakota Peace Coalition. Historian Carrie Reber Zeman will moderate a discussion of stories about the U.S. Dakota War of 1862. Zeman edited the 2012 edition of Mary Butler Renville’s 1863 book, “A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War.”