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Indigenous People’s Day: One small step on the path toward reconciliation

There were internment camps at Fort Snelling that had devastating impacts on Dakota people both mentally and physically.

On April 27, the Minneapolis City Council approved a resolution to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day. While this is a step toward correcting the collective memory of the past, more steps are needed to reconcile Minnesotans with indigenous peoples.

As three University of Minnesota honors students, we were taking a class on atrocities and attempts at reconciliation. Our final project was to research a process of reconciliation within the Twin Cities. We all knew the cursory details of U.S. interactions with indigenous peoples, such as the first Thanksgiving and the Trail of Tears, but very few specifies about interactions with Minnesota’s indigenous people.

Growing up in Minnesota, we studied Minnesota history and visited Fort Snelling. However, until we were in college, we did not learn about atrocities committed, specific events, and the current complex relationships between the state and indigenous peoples. This is problematic: For many Minnesotans, all the knowledge they will have of the events of the Dakota War will stop in middle school.

An eye-opener

The research we did over the semester was a real eye-opener. We spoke with members of the Dakota community and the Minnesota Historical Society. Though not everyone had the same views, one thing was clear: More people need to know about the crimes against humanity that were committed in Minnesota. Members of the Dakota community should lead this educational process, but it should have the broad and unwavering support of the majority community.

Symbolic events, such as creating Indigenous People’s Day, are not sufficient by themselves but should be accompanied by educational initiatives. The white perspective has dominated the narrative of past events, including white settlers’ victimization and proclaiming of righteousness. But little attention is given to the Native American perspective that includes the victimization of the Dakota. Many atrocities were committed against the Dakota peoples — all to the advantage of white settlers in Minnesota. These are facts that are unfortunately forgotten by a majority of Minnesotans.  

There were internment camps at Fort Snelling, for example, that had devastating impacts on Dakota people both mentally and physically. There is little reference to these facts at Fort Snelling itself, which continues to be a place of settler righteousness and American imperialism. This has to change.

In Mankato, the largest mass execution in American history took place when 38 Dakota people were hung under false pretenses. This fact gets little recognition in schools or by the state of Minnesota. We learned that as white Minnesotans, we are directly benefiting from the atrocities and land theft from the Dakota community. All white Minnesotans are benefiting by these crimes against humanity. It is necessary that we recognize these atrocities so that we may make up for them through a process of reconciliation.

Beyond symbolic gestures

In the past, the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) promoted the white settlers’ perspective while whitewashing the brutal history of the atrocities committed. But in recent years MHS has been doing a better job of incorporating Dakota perspective in textbooks and exhibits. This is a good start, but more needs to be done. New textbooks with a Dakota perspective are needed, and more exhibits and monuments are needed, especially at Fort Snelling. Some changes are underway: Tribes have been working to publish more Dakota stories from the war as well as to create signage and memorials across Minnesota.

Our project has been an enlightening experience for us. Now that we know the brutal history of Minnesotans, we appreciate and respect indigenous history and peoples more. It is hard to say if reconciliation is possible between the groups, but all white Minnesotans should be obligated to learn the history better. This will have the result not only of combating the notion of settler righteousness but also of promoting solidarity between the communities and creating a dialogue of reconciliation.

We are optimistic that Indigenous People’s Day and greater education of the U.S.-indigenous relationship will result in more activity between tribes and non-native peoples.

Luke Wolf, Zeb Dawson and Nicola Brambilla are undergraduate honors students at the University of Minnesota — Brambilla and Dawson in political science, and Wolf in history. 


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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/23/2014 - 04:27 pm.

    Fort Snelling

    Speaking of Fort Snelling and interpretation, there’s a lecture this evening at Fort on Native American and African American relations by Dr. Tiya Miles. It starts at 6:30 and will be in the auditorium in the fort’s visitor center.

    Also opening this evening is an exhibit from the National Museum of the American Indians, “Indivisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.” I encourage people who are interested in the culture of our area to come on down to the fort and check it out.

    Concerning the internment camp at Fort Snelling, there is a memorial to the people lost at the camp directly in front of the state park’s visitor center. Which isn’t to say more does not need to be done to tell the Dakota story. I grew up in Mankato and heard a lot about the hangings, but very little about the greater context of the uprising and nothing at all about the internment camp over by Sibley Park.

    For those who are interested in learning more, here’s a link to the details about tonight’s lecture.

    Also this weekend Fort Snelling will open for the season, including a military timeline on Monday to commemorate Memorial Day. For those who would like to chat more about the fort and the issues discussed in this article, I’ll personally be leading tours of the upper post on Monday from 10:00 – 2:00. The tours are free and will take about 45 minutes to an hour. Plus you can get all the history you want with all of its messy details.

    President, Friends of Fort Snelling

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/24/2014 - 09:14 am.

    To aid in your research

    If I were the authors of this piece, I would check the archives of the St. Paul Pioneer Press to find the 1962 Sunday editions that marked the 100 year anniversary of the Sioux Uprising.

    It was a very thorough and balanced history of events including the Dakota’s side of the story in great detail, including the promised gold and other payments sitting undelivered in a Fort Snelling warehouse while all this was going on and the famous incident of finding the body of the Indian agent with his mouth stuffed with grass.

    My seventh-grade class was also studying this period of state history and to our teacher’s credit, she told both sides of the conflict in a even, non-judgmental manner. When I volunteered that I had an ancestor who was one of the 300 warriors arrested at Mankato, she asked me to share what I knew with the class and they were all genuinely interested as I related the family history.

    And that’s how our history should be taught. Fair and balanced. It serves no purpose to paint one side as the victim and the other as the aggressor other than to stir up hatred and resentments over incidents that we, ourselves, were not a part of.

    There’s as much resentment from the descendants of the 800 white settlers who were raped and murdered as there is from the descendants of the Dakota tribes who were banished to Nebraska afterwards while their relatives were hanged at Mankato.

    It is an interesting and integral historical event. One that certainly affects me and my family more than it affects you, I’m sure. But if you really want to create a “dialogue of reconciliation,” then take my advice and agree that it would be wise to drop the use of terms like “atrocities” and “crimes against humanity” because both sides were as guilty or innocent as the other in that regard. You might find a greater willingness of both white and Indian people to talk about it openly and honestly if you withhold judgment.

    Because I can assure you that as much as they try to be sincere, contrite and apologetic white people who weren’t there hold no sway with the Indian folks I know.

  3. Submitted by mike schoonover on 05/24/2014 - 10:06 am.

    a step farther away

    i think its time we have a day to reflect on the progress that
    has been continually dwell and rehash past historical
    events without the context of all the positive advances that
    have and will be made is self defeating.
    it time to move forward together instead of differentiating
    our cultures further.we all should be proud of our heritage
    good and bad.
    no one in my ancestry has ever fought indians nor owned slaves.
    we are just as proud of our heritage as any one else.
    we are also proud to be Americans.

  4. Submitted by Susanne Wissink on 05/24/2014 - 06:12 pm.

    Mr. Tester has good advice; reconciliation is more likely if you talk openly and honestly without incendiary language and without judgement. Where do we go from here? Nowhere unless we talk about it. Will everybody be happy? No, but we have to start somewhere. I think the goal should be understanding all viewpoints.

    A minor point to clarify, it was not Fort Snelling but rather the Upper Sioux Agency that was involved. The other payments (food) were in the warehouse of the Upper Sioux Agency. The gold payment was late and in the midst of traveling to the agencies the day the war broke out.

    Here are a couple great resources on the topic:
    • Kenneth Carley, “The US-Dakota War”
    • Gary Clayton Anderson & Alan Woolworth, eds., “Through Dakota Eyes”

    For full disclosure, I am on the board of Friends of Fort Snelling, a non-profit organization, dedicated to the preservation of the historic and natural values of the Fort Snelling area.

  5. Submitted by Doug Gray on 05/27/2014 - 07:20 pm.

    While we can certainly acknowledge that, in the long history of conflict between Europeans and Indians in this hemisphere, there is brutality enough to go around, we also need to acknowledge that the majority of the brutality, not to mention the callous dehumanization and disrespect inherent in what has come to be called ethnic cleansing, has been perpetrated against Indians by Europeans.

    The settlers, largely innocent, who were killed and brutalized in the early days of the 1862 Minnesota conflict were there as a direct result of United States government policies designed to push aside all obstacles to its “manifest destiny.” Their false assumption that the federal or state governments would or could protect them from violent attacks provoked by injustice and corruption was not their fault. They, no less than the Indians, were sacrificial victims to that policy and that system.

    What we shouldn’t do is use their unjust victimhood to attempt to justify the long history of broken treaties; massacres of women, children and old men; intentional exposure to deadly disease; exploitation for financial gain; unlawful trial and execution; unlawful dispossession, confinement and forced relocation; and the rest of the sad, if inevitable, results from the displacement of the Indian way of life by ours. The scales of historical justice can’t be so casually balanced by heaping bodies into the pans.

    It is equally disingenuous to claim that those of us born since Appomattox and Wounded Knee live in some kind of post-racial world where acknowledging that dispossessing Indians, enslaving Africans and oppressing both helped create our modern conditions of privilege and prosperity is antiquated or somehow distasteful.

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