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Giving history consequences: Apologizing to Minnesota’s Indian people

Before you declare an apology to be “meaningless” you need give those requesting the apology a chance to explain what it means to them.

Over the course of the last several month students at the University of Minnesota have been working on a provocative class project.  60 students in Carter Meland’s  “American Indians In Minnesota” class examined the Dakota Conflict of 1862, the treaty violations preceding it, and the cultural genocide and stolen land that followed. The students decided that an apology might be in order.

The 1862 Uprising

An Overdue Apology premiered to a large audience on the U of M campusPhoto by Paul Udstrand‘An Overdue Apology’ premiered to a large audience on
the U of M campus

By the time of the 1862 uprising, several treaties had already pushed Indian people in Minnesota into a precarious position of being dependent on the US government for food and money.  Treaties established that Indians were entitled to food and annuity payments but the US government reneged on those obligations and put the Indians in a position of impending starvation.  One of the government agents responsible for meeting the treaty requirements, Andrew Myrick; summed up the US government position when he said: “as far as I’m concerned they can eat grass or dung”. Faced with starvation the Indians struck out in an uprising that became the only actual war ever waged between the US government and Indians on Minnesota soil.  Myrick would be found dead with grass stuffed into his mouth and over 1,200 people would be killed over the course of two months in actual combat. However in many ways the aftermath of the war overshadows the war itself.

As a result off the uprising more than 1,600 of Dakota women, children, and old men, were placed in a concentration camp below the bluffs of Fort Snelling. At least 300 people died of illness and starvation at the Fort Snelling concentration camp. The conflict also resulted in the largest mass execution in US history when 38 warriors were hung in Mankato Minnesota. And to top it off the following year the Dakota or Ojibwa were expelled from Minnesota entirely (with a few exception). Congress established a $25 bounty per scalp on any Dakota found free in Minnesota and nullified all previous treaties.

The injustices levied upon Minnesota’s Indians were not all directly associated with the war. In the coming decades Indian children would be forced into boarding schools that were deliberately designed to eradicate all vestiges of native culture. Cut off from their families, language and traditions, Indian children were subjected to a harsh form of cultural genocide. Their native language was forbidden, their hair was cut, and they were separated from their tribes and families. What Indian lands were left in late 1800′s and early 20th century were subjected to a number of policies that further denigrated Indian culture and shrank Indian land holdings to a fraction of what had been left. For instance although the White Earth Indian Reservation is comprised of some 1,100 square miles, only ten percent of that is currently owned by Indian People. In fact Indian are a minority on the White Earth reservation with 5,100 out of a total of 9,200 being white. According to Wikipedia:

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Much of the community’s land was improperly sold or seized by outside interests, including the U.S. federal government, in the late 19th century and early 20th century. According to the Dawes Act of 1887, the communal land was to be allotted to individual households recorded in tribal rolls, for cultivation in subsistence farming. Under the act, the remainder was declared surplus and available for sale to non-Native Americans. The Nelson Act of 1889 was a corollary law that enabled the land to be divided and sold to non-Natives.

‘An Overdue Apology’

Now if you’re like me, you read the history of the Dakota Conflict and you said: “huh?”  Although I knew about the conflict before I saw the movie, I have to say I didn’t learn about it in school. In fact I’d say the Majority of Minnesotan’s know little if anything at all about what can be arguably described as the most pivotal event in Minnesota history.  Other than statehood and the construction of Fort Snelling, few other events influenced the nature and shape of Minnesota as did the Dakota conflict. The exile of all Dakota and the nullification of treaties opened up millions of acres of land to white settlers.  From the iron range to jolly green valleys of Le Sueur Minnesota would not be what it is today without that land grab. The Land grab is just the tip of the iceberg, that conflict in one way or another influences the states relationship with the tribes for the next 100 years. In the 1950s Hospitals in the Twin Cities were still refusing to provide medical treatment to Indian people.

Audience member Sally Granath discusses her impressions after the screeningPhoto by Paul UdstrandAudience member Sally Granath discusses her
impressions after the screening

Meland and his students have responded to the issues surrounding the injustices committed against Minnesota’s Indian people by producing: “An Overdue Apology”  This 60+ minute film explores the history of Indian people in Minnesota and concludes that Indian people in Minnesota are entitled to an apology.  The students produced in a few months what could easily have taken two years, so there are some technical glitches, it’s not as polished as a Robert Redford documentary.  Nevertheless the movie covers the ground and gets us into the question in a serious way.  Should we make a formal apology to the Indian people of Minnesota for the past crimes committed on our behalf?

The demand for an apology is quite provocative, but it shouldn’t be. In many ways it’s simply a request that history be recognized and accounted for. Nevertheless many people seem to take reflexive offense at the proposal, as if it’s a personal attack of some kind.  This is a request for an apology from the US government and Government of MN, not a request for a personal apology from people who obviously did not participate in historical crimes or injustices. A president or governor may be the voice of that apology, but no one is claiming that they are personally responsible. This is not a bizarre concept, Government are durable entities that are accountable for the duration of their existence. Nations are sometimes accountable even if their governments change. This is what makes treaties, laws, constitutions etc. enforceable long after the authors have died. This is the same government, even if it is different people. And I would add that this is YOUR government, taking responsibility for past actions is part keeping your government accountable. There are many examples of government issuing apologies for historical crimes.

Student film maker Nicki Price discusses the moviePhoto by Paul UdstrandStudent film maker Nicki Price discusses the movie

Many people reject the idea of apologizing because they think it would be a meaningless gesture without consequence. We have to ask though: Meaningless to whom? Obviously it’s not meaningless to those requesting the apology. One sided refusals to apologize are little more than a reflexive exercise of power. Before you declare an apology to be “meaningless” you need give those requesting the apology a chance to explain what it means to them. And since any consequences of an apology are created by the apology, one cannot declare an apology that has not been rendered to be inconsequential. Obviously an apology could be a meaningless gesture, but it could also be a bridge to a better understanding of history and more respectful relationships among people. You may be able to argue that an apology is useless as long as it’s theoretical, but once an actual apology is issued, it may well create a powerful significance.

Student film maker Lyric Rafn-Stoffer discusses the movie after the premierPhoto by Paul UdstrandStudent film maker Lyric Rafn-Stoffer discusses the
movie after the premier

Finally, we’re talking about our history, and who we are. History defines us and points us in certain directions. A history that suppresses the Dakota conflict and the conquest of Indians creates a very different history than one that acknowledges those events. Such a history also points us towards a different future. Indians have not disappeared from the landscape, they are real people, fellow human beings, and fellow Minnesotans. We do not live in a museum. An apology acknowledges our history, and points us towards a future where we treat each other with dignity and respect.

Carter Meland leads a post premier discussionPhoto by Paul UdstrandCarter Meland leads a post premier discussion

Some people object to an apology but suggest we can simply do a better job of teaching history, just add the Dakota Conflict to the curriculum. While there is some merit to that position it results in a compartmentalized history. This is a history where events are treated like discrete phenomena, something that happened then, but is of little consequence now.  An apology engages history instead of compartmentalizing it. An apology keeps us from looking at history as something under glass, to be learned and then forgotten. An apology links us from where we are now, and who we are now, to where we were, and who we were,  by making history consequential. How can that be a meaningless gesture?

This post was written by Paul Udstrand and originally published on Thoughtful Bastards.

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