Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Can reconciliation ever exist over the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862? July 15, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:58 AM
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A marker honors soldiers and citizens at the Birch Coulee Monument near Morton. White men and Native Americans fought in the battle at Birch Coulee on September 2 and 3 during the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862.

IF EVER A WAR suffered an identity crisis, it would be the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862. I’m not stating that lightly or in any manner that would indicate disrespect to anyone.

But, in all honesty, I sometimes don’t know how to label the battle between the Dakota people and the white people. I’ve struggled for years with that issue, most recently while writing an essay “Strong Words on Strong Stone at Birch Coulee,” published in Hidden History of the Minnesota River Valley by Elizabeth Johanneck.

The Loyal Indian Monument at Birch Coulee Monument honors Native Americans and features strong, uppercased words like HUMANITY, PATRIOTISM, FIDELITY and COURAGE.

Back in the 1970s, when I wrote a high school term paper on this conflict, I tagged my research as “The Sioux Uprising of 1862,” the accepted designation then. Prior to that, the word “massacre,” which seems entirely too biased and accusatory, denoted this event in Minnesota history. The conflict has also been termed as an “outbreak,” to me a tag more fitting of a disease.

The name evolved next to “The Dakota War of 1862” (still used by many) and then to the prevailing current-day usage, “U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862.”

Apparently, though, that label isn’t set in stone. Recently, while touring the Rice County Historical Society Museum in Faribault, Director Susan Garwood and I discussed the title while standing next to a recently-restored Civil War battle flag carried by Co. C Sixth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.

Today the word “rebellion” has even been tossed about in defining the conflict, Garwood says.

Right or wrong, I find it interesting that, 148 years after this “war” or “conflict” (or whatever word you choose to define it), the discussion continues. To me, the identity seems to switch with new insights, changing attitudes and/or political correctness.

Garwood also shared that more and more, historians are leaning toward viewing this conflict between the Dakota and the white people as part of the Civil War. After all, Minnesota soldiers, like the Sixth Regiment, fought against the Confederacy and defended the settlers against the Dakota. I suppose in many ways this makes sense since the wars between the North and the South and between the Dakota and the white men occurred simultaneously and were intertwined in defining the history of Minnesota and of this country.

Two Minnesota sites, Fort Ridgely and the location of the Battle of Wood Lake, are among nationally-designated Civil War battlefields. Both have been ranked by the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission of the National Park Service as “needing additional protection.” A Wood Lake Battlefield Preservation Association is working to preserve the battleground that marked the end of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict.

Dakota beadwork displayed at the Rice County Historical Society Museum in Faribault.

I expect that differences in opinion will always exist regarding the “correct” terminology and historical connections for the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862 just as differences exist among people.

I grew up within 15 miles of the Battle of Wood Lake on land that lies between the Upper Sioux Community and the Lower Sioux Indian Community, so I am well aware of the differing perspectives and, yes, even prejudices and discontentment, that lingered when I left the area 36 years ago and which continue today.

Now as the 150th anniversary of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota Conflict approaches in 2012, I wonder, even worry, that deeply-rooted bad feelings, misunderstandings, bitterness and misconceptions will roil to the surface.

I hope that respect, rather than disrespect, define this remembrance.

Already, some efforts are underway to assure that the 150th commemoration includes reconciliation. According to an article in the New Ulm Journal, German polka dancers and Lower Sioux Community chanters, drummers and dancers performed earlier this week at a joint concert in New Ulm, site of several major clashes during the U.S.-Dakota Conflict.

A 150th Anniversary Steering Committee of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 has formed and launched a Web site, http://BrownCountyDakotaWarCommemoration.com. Currently, a contest is underway for a logo that represents the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The winning design will be used to promote commemorative activities planned for August 2012.

Although nothing has been finalized, committee member Kim Janke tells me her group is planning battle site tours; marker dedications; symposiums; a banquet; dedication of a Brown County Museum exhibit on the War of 1862, “representing the pioneers, Native Americans and what happened during the war;” and more.

All of this gives me hope that someday, perhaps soon, all of us, no matter our differences regarding the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862, can stand together, reconciled, in an unbroken circle of peace.

Dakota beaded moccasins exhibited at the Rice County Historical Society Museum.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

4 Responses to “Can reconciliation ever exist over the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862?”

  1. Kristin Says:

    Great pictures… I don’t know much about the Dakota/US War but think that as a great granddaughter of homesteaders I probably should learn a lot more.

  2. Long time ago, but still controversy exists. When we toured Ft. Ridgley and Upper Sioux Agency nearly 20 years ago, we were appalled by the story that food for the Native Americans was withheld by the local agent, who said, “Let them eat grass.” Obviously, the statement caused more violence to happen. Recently, we discovered that my wife’s relative’s farm family was attacked. My wife’s great grandfather was 8 years old and home with his stepmother and 2 brothers unloading hay into the barn. The attackers shot the 8-year-old and his stepmother, who died of the wounds. The oldest boy hid in the woods, the 2 girls hid in the cellar, and the 8-year-old pretended he was dead. The Native Americans were in a hurry and did not search for anyone. This is just one of thousands of personal tragedies on both sides of the conflict.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yes, the “Let them eat grass” comment is one I heard way back when while studying the U.S.-Dakota Conflict. I can only imagine how I would feel if someone told me to eat grass while sitting with a whole stockpile of food.

      Like your wife’s relatives, family members on my mother’s side, who lived near Courtland, fled to St. Peter for safety. If I recall correctly some neighbors lost their lives.

      Indeed, many tragic stories exist on both sides.

  3. […] War.  Today a commonly used term is “Reconciliation”  In her thoughtful post on the subject, Audrey Kletscher Helbling observes that contemporary “historians are leaning toward viewing this conflict between the […]


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